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Silicon Valley Is Listening to Your Most Intimate Moments


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A roomful of listeners.

Consulting firm Juniper Research Ltd. estimates that by 2023, the global annual market for smart speakers will reach $11 billion, and there will be about 7.4 billion voice-controlled devices in use, roughly one for every person on Earth.

Credit: Scott Gelber for Bloomberg Businessweek

Ruthy Hope Slatis couldn't believe what she was hearing. She'd been hired by a temp agency outside Boston for a vague job: transcribing audio files for Amazon.com Inc. For $12 an hour, she and her fellow contractors, or "data associates," listened to snippets of random conversations and jotted down every word on their laptops. Amazon would only say the work was critical to a top-secret speech-recognition product. The clips included recordings of intimate moments inside people's homes.

This was in fall 2014, right around the time Amazon unveiled the Echo speaker featuring Alexa, its voice-activated virtual-assistant software. Amazon pitched Alexa as a miracle of artificial intelligence in its first Echo ad, in which a family asked for and received news updates, answers to trivia questions, and help with the kids' homework. But Slatis soon began to grasp the extent to which humans were behind the robotic magic she saw in the commercial. "Oh my God, that's what I'm working on," she remembers thinking. Amazon was capturing every voice command in the cloud and relying on data associates like her to train the system. Slatis first figured she'd been listening to paid testers who'd volunteered their vocal patterns in exchange for a few bucks. She realized that couldn't be.

The recordings she and her co-workers were listening to were often intense, awkward, or intensely awkward. Lonely sounding people confessing intimate secrets and fears: a boy expressing a desire to rape; men hitting on Alexa like a crude version of Joaquin Phoenix in Her. And as the transcription program grew along with Alexa's popularity, so did the private information revealed in the recordings. Other contractors recall hearing kids share their home address and phone number, a man trying to order sex toys, a dinner party guest wondering aloud whether Amazon was snooping on them at that very instant. "There's no frickin' way they knew they were being listened to," Slatis says. "These people didn't agree to this." She quit in 2016.

In the five years since Slatis first felt her skin crawl, a quarter of Americans have bought "smart speaker" devices such as the Echo, Google Home, and Apple HomePod. (A relative few have even bought Facebook's Portal, an adjacent smart video screen.) Amazon is winning the sales battle so far, reporting that more than 100 million Alexa devices have been purchased. But now a war is playing out between the world's biggest companies to weave Alexa, Apple's Siri, Alphabet's Google Assistant, Microsoft's Cortana, and Facebook's equivalent service much deeper into people's lives. Mics are built into phones, smartwatches, TVs, fridges, SUVs, and everything in between. Consulting firm Juniper Research Ltd. estimates that by 2023 the global annual market for smart speakers will reach $11 billion, and there will be about 7.4 billion voice-controlled devices in the wild. That's about one for every person on Earth.

 

From Bloomberg Businessweek
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