De-blackbox Past, Present, and Future Of Alexa

Annaliese Blank

Zachary Omer

Beiyuan Gu

Amazon is one of the biggest global commodity based companies that is running the world. One of their most important technologies they have marketed is Alexa. Alexa is known as their own patented product that is their very own virtual assistant technology. “She” was first made in 2014 and has been refined in various versions in now 2018-2019. She is designed to be a virtual assistant technology in your own home to continually listen to its “master” and be of any form of assistance to their needs or inquiries. Alexa requires the internet and relies on verbal speech to be used in order to “wake the technology with the wake word” which then records virtually what was asked and records down all of your speech patterns in order for better speech recognition and performance.

The purpose of Alexa was solely to enhance the smaller or larger tasks of our lives whether it be answering a question, complex or not, texting a message to anyone in your contact list, or looking up the easiest recipe in your kitchen to be as at home sue-chef. All of these tasks are done virtually and answer is produced within on average less than 5 seconds. The data we give to Alexa is virtually coded, understood, and stored al within milliseconds and in this algorithm, the most accurate answer is then produced, usually without most general awareness of how this was made so quickly. No task too small is Alexa’s motto for our group!

Some quotes we wanted to pull from some research we did:

  • You control Alexa with your voice. Alexa streams audio to the cloud when you interact with Alexa. Amazon processes and retains your Alexa Interactions, such as your voice inputs, music playlists, and your Alexa to-do and shopping lists, in the cloud to provide, personalize, and improve our services” (Amazon Help, pg.1).
  • “Voice interaction, music playback, makingto-do lists, setting alarms, streamingpodcasts, and playingaudiobooks, in addition to providing weather, traffic and other real-time information. It can also control severalsmart devices, acting as ahome automationhub” (Wikipedia, pg.1).

To analyze this technology further, we wanted to understand the technology and de-black box its body parts and see more visual aids on where the voice recognition process occurs and be able to understand how the actual root of the machinery works. The socio-technical components are thus followed:

We will break down the components more in the presentation. Some quick parts are the light ring, volume ring, and 7 piece microphone array to detect record and listen to your voice when we speak directly to Alexa. This is where she will start to recognize your master voice and virtually store the conversation in the cloud.The whole process to this allows Alexa to begin forming a better way of knowing you and keeping track of your personal usage and data. In doing this, it sets her apart from other competing virtual assistant technologies.

Some pro’s and con’s are thus followed:

PRO’S

  • Efficiency
  • Low Maintenance
  • Timeless
  • Non-tedious
  • Quick Help
  • Accuracy
  • Proficiency
  • Cost Effective

CON’S

  • Privacy risks and costs
  • Data is shared and owned
  • Always listening
  • Agreeing to sell your data to Amazon
  • Ethical or unethical?

With the negative aspects of this technology in mind, Alexa herself has received a lot of backlash over the years in terms of this biggest question: DOES ALEXA POSE A THREAT TO YOUR PERSONAL PRIVACY AND DATA THAT IS SHARED AND STORED, AND OWNED AND USED BY AMAZON WITHOUT OUR PERMISSION OR FULL KNOWLEDGE?

Some current Privacy Control Updates and Thoughts:

  • While Amazon Echo’s microphones are always listening, speech recognition is performed locally by the device until the wake word has been detected, at which point the subsequent voice command is forwarded to Amazon’s servers for processing. In addition, Amazon Echo is equipped with a physical button to mute the microphones.
  • Companion mobile apps and websites enable users to review and delete prior voice interactions with the device should they feel uncomfortable or not want Amazon to keep particular voice recordings on their servers.

With this in mind, it becomes increasingly difficult for users to believe this though, because the counter argument would be : DOES ALEXA ALWAYS LISTEN IN ORDER TO ACQUIRE THE WAKE WORD? This is where the threat to privacy and personal data control lies.

Some questions we asked ourselves was, What is actually being recorded? How will this collected information be used and to who? If so, how will it be protected? Will it be used for targeted advertising?

When thinking more about this invasion of privacy, we found an example case to expand on this further:

Case 1: In January, 2017 in Dallas, Texas, when a six-year-old girl asked her family’s new Amazon Echo “can you play dollhouse with me and get me a dollhouse?” The device readily complied, ordering a KidKraft Sparkle mansion dollhouse, in addition to “four pounds of sugar cookies.” The parents quickly realized what had happened and have since added a code for purchases. They have also donated the dollhouse a local children’s hospital.

The story could have stopped there, had it not ended up on a local morning show on San Diego’s CW6 News. At the end of the story, Anchor Jim Patton remarked: “I love the little girl, saying ‘Alexa ordered me a dollhouse,’” According to CW6 News, Echo owners who were watching the broadcast found that the remark triggered orders on their own devices.

Case 2: May 25, 2018, a woman in Portland, Oregon found out that her family’s home digital assistant, Amazon’s Alexa, had recorded a conversation between her and her husband without their permission or awareness, and sent the audio recording to a random person on their contacts list.

With all of this said, we wanted then make some concluding thoughts on the future to Alexa and where it would be headed. According to the SLU project, at SLU they are the first University to bring Amazon Alexa embedded devices, managed by Alexa for Business purposes in the residence halls and on campus apartments. This is a great example of empowering education with better technology for the future. SLU has installed more than 2,300 ECHO devices that are also great campus helpers to inform students on campus information and updates.

When we mean business, this is the future. Thousands of national and international companies use this type of virtual assistant technology in their own algorithmic work and company structure. Here is a picture below of a business model and how it contributes to the work environment:

 

In light of all of this, we gained a better perspective for this respective technology and how she is changing the business and social world, one model and revision at a time. She is going nowhere; we look forward to seeing more virtual assistant technology unfold in the future and see how much more they will able to do and alter in our every day lives.

Citations:

 

Alexa for Business Overview, Retrieved from https://aws.amazon.com/alexaforbusiness/

Alexa Privacy and Data Handling Overview, Retrieved from https://d1.awsstatic.com/product-marketing/A4B/White%20Paper%20-%20Alexa%20Privacy%20and%20Data%20Handling%20Overview.pdfAlexa Terms of Use. Updated 11/27/2018, Retrieved from https://www.amazon.com/gp/help/customer/display.html?nodeId=201809740

Alexa, Echo Devices, and Your Privacy (FAQs), Retrieved from https://www.amazon.com/gp/help/customer/display.html/?nodeId=GVP69FUJ48X9DK8V?ref_=ods_aucc_dp_farfield_rd

D’Angelo, M. (2018, December 26). Alexa for Business: What Small to Medium Businesses Need to Know. Business News Daily. Retrieved from https://www.businessnewsdaily.com/10426-amazon-alexa-business-details.html

History of Amazon Echo, Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amazon_Echo#History

Horcher, G. (2018, May 25). Woman says her Amazon device recorded private conversation, sent it out to random contact. KIRO 7 News. Retrieved from https://www.kiro7.com/news/local/woman-says-her-amazon-device-recorded-private-conversation-sent-it-out-to-random-contact/755507974

Lau, J., Zimmerman, B., & Schaub, F. (2018). Alexa, are you listening? Proceedings of the ACM on Human-Computer Interaction, 2(CSCW), 1-31. doi:10.1145/3274371

Molla, R. (2019, January 15). The future of voice assistants like Alexa and Siri isn’t just in homes — it’s in cars. Retrieved from Recode website: https://www.recode.net/2019/1/15/18182465/voice-assistant-alexa-siri-home-car-future

Saint Louis University. (2018, August). SLU Installing Amazon Alexa-Enabled Devices in Every Student Living Space on Campus. Retrieved from SLU Alexa Project web page: https://www.slu.edu/news/2018/august/slu-alexa-project.php