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Amazon’s Alexa devices send audio files to human reviewers to improve its technology

Thousands of Amazon employees around the world listen to users’ voice recordings captured on Alexa-powered Echo speakers, reports Bloomberg. Amazon workers listen to the audio clips which they then transcribe, annotate and feed back into the software to improve Alexa’s voice recognition ability and to help it understand commands better. The teams are based out of Amazon offices in Boston, Costa Rica, India and Romania with each reviewer working for 9 hours a day working on 1000 audio clips per shift. Its worth noting that Amazon’s Alexa devices captured 59% of the smart speakers market share in 2018. Amazon was the first company to introduce smart speakers in India, with the launch of its Echo range in 2017.

Occasionally the listeners pick up things Echo owners likely would rather stay private: a woman singing badly off key in the shower, say, or a child screaming for help. The teams use internal chat rooms to share files when they need help parsing a muddled word—or come across an amusing recording.

Amazon’s Privacy policy; and personally identifiable data

Amazon does note in its marketing and privacy policy say that humans are listening to recordings of some conversations picked up by Alex. Its simply says in its FAQs that “We use your requests to Alexa to train our speech recognition and natural language understanding systems.” The company does give users the option of disabling the use of the their voice recordings for the development of new features. Bloomberg said that the recordings sent to the reviewers don’t have the user’s full name and address but the files are associated with an account number, first name, and the device’s serial number.

Alexa is designed to continuously record bits of audio listening for a “wake” word like “Alexa”, “Echo” or “Computer”. When the wake word is detected the ring at the top of the device turn blue, which means its recording voice and sending instructions to Amazon servers.  However, Alexa devices do begin recording without any prompt at all, and can lead to bizarre events. Bloomberg also reported that the Amazon reviewers each transcribe as many as 100 recordings a day that did not have any wake words, or were woken accidentally.

Siri and Google Home have human helpers too

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According to Bloomberg, even Apple’s Siri has human helpers who work on understanding if Siri correctly understands what users say. Apple says the recordings do not have personally identifiable information, and are tied to a random identifier. Google says some of its reviewers can access some audio clips from its Assistant to help improve the product, but it’s not associated with any personally identifiable information and the audio is distorted. Google captured the second-highest market or 39% share in India in 2018.

Also read: Echo shares private conversation without permission, Amazon calls it a ‘rare occurrence’

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