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Alexa’s human assistants: will Amazon take privacy concerns seriously?

Alexa is listening for your commands, and so, reportedly are Amazon staff and contractors, who are amassing speech data to improve the smart speaker’s responsiveness. These revelations about Alexa’s human assistants have, unsurprisingly, raised privacy concerns.

Alexa apparently needs a little help from human sources to better decipher user requests. Amazon acknowledged that individual staff and contractors in a number of countries including Romania, India, Costa Rica, and the US each evaluate as many as 1,000 recorded requests to Alexa during their nine-hour shift.

The staffers feed notes into software that provides better context to requests which Amazon said will ultimately produce a better user experience.

While it is no secret that human intervention still plays an important role in artificial intelligence, negative reaction to the reports that Amazon personnel are privy to what are perceived as private moments was swift and widespread.

Since Amazon first launched Alexa in 2014, consumers and industry experts have debated whether the merits of the smart speaker’s convenience outweigh questions about the potentially invasive nature of a major corporate entity literally listening – and recording – a consumer in their home or business.

However, those debates have hardly quelled smart speaker adoption with nearly a quarter of all households owning at least one of those devices in 2018, according to the media research firm Nielsen.

The idea that an individual Amazon staffer is listening to and annotating recordings of a consumer’s voice may make the company’s presence in the home seem that much more invasive to some. But it is unlikely that it will significantly impact sales of the popular smart speakers.

It is also worth noting that while by default Amazon Alexa users agree to share their recorded speech with Amazon for ongoing product development, there is an option in the product’s setting to turn off that function.

Consumers can take a number of lessons from this, starting with understanding the default settings and workarounds when it comes to sharing personal information. The Amazon Alexa situation underscores a very important point about the extent to which human intervention still plays an important role in artificial intelligence.

On a broader basis, consumers do seem willing to sacrifice some privacy for considerable convenience. Many are fairly blasé about a corporate entity having access to personal data.

The role humans play in assisting Alexa may make Amazon’s access to what is perceived as private data more personal and intrusive. This will lead to calls for greater transparency about how Amazon uses and protects that data. But whether Amazon will take such concerns seriously if consumer demand continues at pace remains to be seen.

This article was initially published on Verdict, which is part of the same group as NS Tech and GlobalData