Why is Alexa important

Special

Voice assistants, which in recent years have spread via devices such as Amazon's networked echo speakers or Apple's iPhones, were sometimes seen as the future, sometimes as a half-baked gimmick - but this year an unpleasant secret of the industry came to light. So that the software can understand the user, recordings of dialogues have to be listened to again and again by people. The vast majority of users were not aware of this. Also because the practice was at best mentioned somewhere in the documents in the small print. Or not.


The ball got rolling in April. The financial service Bloomberg revealed that some recordings of conversations with Amazon's assistant software Alexa are evaluated at various locations around the world, including Boston, Costa Rica, India and Romania. And not only directly with the group, but also with service companies. For example, a Boston employee said he analyzed recordings with the words "Taylor Swift" and added a note that users meant the singer.

Then it became clear, step by step, that Apple's Siri and Google Assistant are no different.

The service providers face a real problem. Users expect a voice assistant to understand them. But how do you improve the software in the event of errors, if you don't know exactly where and how it went wrong? This is particularly important in special cases such as dialects or accents, which it is difficult to cover with a general learning of the programs, according to the industry.

An equally difficult case are the faulty activations, in which the voice assistants wrongly believe that they have heard their wake-up words such as "Alexa" or "Hey, Siri". Here it is important for the developers to know which sounds exactly led to the misunderstanding in order to adapt the software accordingly.

However, the recordings after faulty triggering are also potentially particularly worrying from a data protection point of view: because they contain sentences that were most likely not intended for the voice assistant, but rather originate from conversations between users. An employee of an Apple service provider told the Guardian newspaper that some very private details could be heard on the recordings. Siri also snatches up fragments of conversations with medical or business content, possible criminal activities or even users having sex, he said.

After the revelations, the previous practice could no longer be maintained. The Apple group, for which the criticism was particularly painful in view of the long-term data protection promise, was the first to pull the ripcord and announced that it would only allow recordings to be evaluated by people with the express permission of the users. In addition, this only happens with the company itself and no longer with service providers. Google also opted for an "opt-in" process with prior consent.

Amazon, on the other hand, chose a different solution. The online retailer chose what is known as an "opt-out" in which users can object to the use of their recordings, but this is a standard requirement. Amazon sees this as the better solution for users, says equipment manager Dave Limp. It could of course be that its competitors are further in machine learning than Amazon - which he very much doubts - "or their services will not improve anytime soon." He hoped "that one day we will not need people to participate" - but that is still necessary. At the same time, the reactions in the media were stronger than among users: "Customers have not stopped using Alexa." dpa