The voice assistant could eventually listen to all conversations in a room, identify speakers, and even interrupt them with sponsored suggestions
During the Second World War, a campaign warned private citizens against speaking too loosely in public places about matters of national interest. After all (so the campaign explained) one could never be sure of who was eavesdropping.
In recent years, the rise of ‘listening robots’ has been precipitous, including Google’s Assistant, Amazon’s Echo device, and Apple’s Siri-activate HomePod.
Triggered by ‘call names’ (for example, Siri), they offer useful hands-free assistance on everything from checking the weather and travel, to selecting music from a personal playlist.
In the Case of Alexa, things are set to take what many would consider a sinister development by adopting a far more ‘hands-on’ attitude
A recent Amazon patent suggests the voice assistant could eventually listen to all conversations in a room, identify speakers, and even interrupt them with sponsored suggestions and recommended targeted advertising to buy products and services that Alexa believes would somehow be related to the ongoing dialogue.
Caution: enter Echo chamber with care
‘Sniffer’ algorithms will process and attempt to identify trigger words a during a conversation which suggests a person’s potential level of interest. For each identified potential trigger word, the device will capture adjacent audio that can be analyzed on the device or remotely, to attempt to determine one or more keywords associated with that trigger word.
Currently, the voice assistant monitors ambient conversations. However, you have to invite it to join conversations by calling out its trigger word, “Alexa”.
According to the new patent, the device is set to become far more proactive, butting into conversations as it feels fit. Even perhaps eventually machine learning who is speaking as well as their individual preferences, – so building a profile of that person and delivering appropriately targeted adverts with products that Amazon thinks the person would need (given the conversation being held).
According to the patent:
“The identified keywords can be stored and/or transmitted to an appropriate location accessible to advertisers or content providers who can use the keywords to attempt to select or customize content that is likely relevant to the user.”
Given the recent shaming surrounding Facebook and data privacy, the potential innovation once again highlights Silicon Valley’s propensity to seamlessly and covertly integrate into people’s everyday private lives.
The Echo range of smart speakers, which are powered by virtual assistant Alexa, do not currently use customers' voice recordings for advertising.
However, interestingly enough, it isn’t unheard of for Amazon Alexa's voice recordings to be reused.
An Amazon Echo device was used in a murder case in the US, where Arkansas man, James Bates, was charged with first-degree murder, partially using evidence gathered by his Echo home assistant.
The judge eventually dismissed the charges.
Amazon is adamant that it is committed to user privacy. (Just as Facebook and other Silicon Valley colossus corporations have assured in the past).
Facebook was recently investigated following rumours that microphones built into devices could be exploited to target users with ads.
The social network's founder, Mark Zuckerberg, stalwartly denied the allegations during a committee appearance where he was questioned by members of the US Congress.
Whenever Facebook or Amazon draws on existing data about a person (usually through a decade of conversations with friends, or perhaps shopping history) they can use it to deliver advertising and recommendations that often appear uncannily accurate. But to do so, they don’t need to surreptitiously listen in to conversations: They already have ample information about all of us - simply from the information we voluntarily upload to their sites.
In the case of the new patent for Amazon’s Echo devices, a spokesperson said:
"We take privacy seriously and have built multiple layers of privacy into our Echo devices…Like many companies, we file a number of forward-looking patent applications that explore the full possibilities of new technology."