A new report from Bloomberg may have shed some light on how Amazon uses employees and contractors in an attempt to train its Alexa smart assistant to better understand words and phrases.
The report has Amazon’s people listening to voice recordings in locations “around the world,” feeding information back into the system to allow it to learn.
Amazon says that the people are there to help “eliminate gaps Alexa’s understanding of human speech and help it better respond to commands,” but questions are understandably being asked as to whether users are aware that recordings of their commands and requests are being listened to.
According to the report, workers can go through as many as 1,000 audio snippets in a nine hour shift, and while most of what they hear is mundane, sometimes it isn’t. There are, unfortunately, times where people hear things they shouldn’t.
Even more unfortunately, Amazon appears to stick its corporate head in the sand when this happens.
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.
Predictably, Amazon says that it takes users’ privacy seriously and that only a small number of audio snippets are listened to.
“We take the security and privacy of our customers’ personal information seriously,” an Amazon spokesman said in an emailed statement. “We only annotate an extremely small sample of Alexa voice recordings in order 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.”
At this point we feel the fact that people are listening to clips in order to train the Alexa algorithms isn’t surprising in itself. Amazon’s lack of action when it stumbles upon potential crimes being committed is particularly concerning however, but ironically it’s likely that privacy concerns are what is preventing it from taking action in such circumstances.
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