Pay no attention to the low-paid contractor behind the curtain.
A Bloomberg report on Wednesday shocked readers with the news that the Amazon Echo devices in their homes are sporadically sending audio recordings to both contractors and employees around the world. Rather than an accidental bug to be quickly patched, this practice is key to what makes Alexa work: The workers listen to the recordings and transcribe them in an effort to improve the digital assistant’s speech recognition capabilities.
Oh, and they also share the audio amongst themselves for laughs.
Understandably, people were horrified by the news. But wait, it gets worse. According to Bloomberg, “the auditors each transcribe as many as 100 recordings a day when Alexa receives no wake command or is triggered by accident.” That means Amazon Echos are randomly recording people in their homes — without those peoples’ knowledge — and sending that audio back to Amazon where real people are listening to and sometimes mocking it.
This is not the first time we’ve been forced to do a collective double take upon learning how supposedly smart tech actually works. In January, the Intercept reported that back in 2016 Ring security cameras gave “virtually unfettered access” to Ring customers’ unencrypted video streams. Ring marketed its fancy AI as being able to distinguish between cars and people, but it turns out that humans were reportedly needed to lend some helping non-digital hands.
Ring was purchased by Amazon in 2018.
These two incidents of smart tech actually being a human-led privacy invasion are troubling, but not isolated. In 2017, expense manage software provider Expensify found itself in a bit of a PR maelstrom following the revelation that it paid humans to review receipts uploaded to the platform under the guise of a “SmartScan” feature. The people seeing where you spent your money — and in the case of an Uber receipt, maybe where you live — did not work for Expensify, but rather did the job piecemeal as part of the Amazon-owned Mechanical Turk platform.
Starting to see a pattern?
The Echo case, while particularly troubling, is also informative. Even a company as all knowing and powerful as Amazon still doesn’t have the technological sophistication needed to deliver on the promise of a seamless smart speaker interaction without the assistance of real people behind the scenes putting in the hours.
So remember that the next time you’re wowed by technology’s seemingly futuristic AI capabilities. There’s a good chance that the digital magic is more grey matter than meets the eye.