First off, let me just say, the only way anyone is going to take my Amazon Prime membership from me is if they pry it from my cold, dead hands.
Yes, I am afraid of our world turning into WALL-E IRL with Amazon being our Buy-N-Large and every human being on the planet losing any semblance of muscle.
Which is why this new report, published by Bloomberg on Wednesday, is more than a little disturbing.
In the report, people who have worked on the Amazon Alexa voice review program explain what happens when real human beings listen to users’ voice recordings.
The Alexa voice review process, described by seven people who have worked on the program, highlights the often-overlooked human role in training software algorithms. In marketing materials Amazon says Alexa “lives in the cloud and is always getting smarter.” But like many software tools built to learn from experience, humans are doing some of the teaching.
The team comprises a mix of contractors and full-time Amazon employees who work in outposts from Boston to Costa Rica, India and Romania, according to the people, who signed nondisclosure agreements barring them from speaking publicly about the program. They work nine hours a day, with each reviewer parsing as many as 1,000 audio clips per shift, according to two workers based at Amazon’s Bucharest office, which takes up the top three floors of the Globalworth building in the Romanian capital’s up-and-coming Pipera district
One person who worked in the Boston office performing the Alexa voice review process stated “the teams use internal chat rooms to share files when they need help parsing a muddled word — or come across an amusing recording” — so that’s not very cool.
Sometimes they hear recordings they find upsetting, or possibly criminal. Two of the workers said they picked up what they believe was a sexual assault. When something like that happens, they may share the experience in the internal chat room as a way of relieving stress. Amazon says it has procedures in place for workers to follow when they hear something distressing, but two Romania-based employees said that, after requesting guidance for such cases, they were told it wasn’t Amazon’s job to interfere.
According to an Amazon spokesman in an emailed statement, “We take the security and privacy of our customers’ personal information seriously. We only annotate an extremely small sample of Alexa voice recordings in order [to] improve the customer experience.
“For example, this information helps us train our speech recognition and natural language understanding systems, so Alexa can better understand your requests, and ensure the service works well for everyone.
“We have strict technical and operational safeguards, and have a zero tolerance policy for the abuse of our system. Employees do not have direct access to information that can identify the person or account as part of this workflow.
“All information is treated with high confidentiality and we use multi-factor authentication to restrict access, service encryption and audits of our control environment to protect it.”
Alexa’s privacy settings do allow users to disable the use of their voice recordings for the development of new features, but even if a user opts out they may still have some of their recordings analyzed by hand.
Amazon isn’t alone in this behavior, of course. Apple’s Siri and Google’s Assistant also have humans that listen to recordings of their users.
Just know that the next time you ask, “Alexa, is someone else listening to us?” the answer very well might just be yes.
Read the entire in-depth article over at Bloomberg.com.