Alexa's human helpers revealed

Using voice assistants feels like magic, and that our AI helpers have finally arrive—but it might surprise you to learn that humans are listening in on many of your conversations with Alexa. 

The story here is that a process called Alexa voice review involves a team of reviewers listening to up to 1,000 audio clips per day, manually marking phrases that weren't recognized or key figures that the searcher might have meant. 

The human reviewers have access to a limited set of recordings directly, and occasionally hear something private: "a woman singing badly off key in the shower, say, or a child screaming for help." But, they freely share them in internal chat, according to the report, particularly if they find something weird or funny.

What's disturbing is what happens when a worker hears something awful. In one case, workers heard "what they believe was a sexual assault" and Amazon's advice was that "it wasn’t Amazon’s job to interfere." Curiously, we also learn that Amazon doesn't tie full identities to this data but does attach an account number, first name, and device serial number to the audio files.

Amazon says that only a "small amount" of audio data goes through this process—but it doesn't really allude to humans reviewing it anywhere in its FAQ or privacy sections. It has always implied that machines are behind the magic, but the reality appears pretty different: there's a bunch of manual processing going on.

Voice data is a data treasure trove and a competitive advantage in the future. Amazon, Google and Apple sit on vast supplies of audio files from users speaking to their gadgets, but what happens inside that black box remains a mystery for the most part—and perhaps a liability in the long term if humans are accessing the data.

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