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Thursday, April 11, 2019

Enhancing your experience

Amazon isn't SPYING on you. They're just improving your experience!
Amazon workers are listening to private and sometimes disturbing voice recordings to improve the voice-assistants' understanding of human speech. Amazon has admitted to its customers that thousands of recordings are being analysed by staff and transcribed before feeding them back into the software.

As many as 1,000 clips are reviewed by workers in buildings all over the world, many of which are not obviously run by the online giant.   Staff members have said that the work is mostly mundane, however they do come across embarrassing clips, like a woman singing off-key in the shower.  The teams use internal chat rooms to share files when they need help deciphering a muddled word - or come when they come across an amusing recording. Among more sinister content the workers have heard, have been a child screaming for help and two instances were they believed they heard a sexual assault taking place. 

Amazon last night confirmed the revelations when approached by Bloomberg saying that 'an extremely small sample of Alexa voice recordings' are analysed by staff. In an emailed statement to MailOnline, an Amazon spokesperson said: 'We only annotate an extremely small sample of Alexa voice recordings in order to improve the customer experience.
I find this particularly amusing because Spacebunny and I use the term "enhancing your user experience" as a synonym "made it stop working". Which is usually expressed in some sort of context like this:

"Did you take out the trash?"

"No, I'm enhancing your user experience!"

Labels: ,

64 Comments:

Blogger #7139 April 11, 2019 6:25 AM  

Whew! I am glad I don’t have Alexa.

Blogger Gregory the Great April 11, 2019 6:31 AM  

Why did you ban all those gammas? They were just enhancing the user experience.

Blogger Harambe April 11, 2019 6:34 AM  

I for one and SHOCKED

Blogger bobby April 11, 2019 6:38 AM  

(I can't believe that I'm about to say something that will tend to defend Amazon, but here goes:)

Back about two decades ago, Dragon came out with the first commercially viable voice recognition software for law firms. It was going to revolutionize brief-writing! Just speak into your microphone instead of tediously typing out everything! (Forget for a moment that structured legal writing isn't something that can be done by extemporaneously speaking - you need to lay down some words, move them here, combine them there, change words - as it turns out, it just wasn't practical.)

The first thing you needed to do when your software arrived was to "train" it to recognize your own voice and your own pronounciation and speech patterns. You would set it up, turn on the microphone, and start reading aloud from one of their long boring selections.

After twenty minutes or so of reading, the program would signal that it had enough, which meant that it could from that point on turn your own speech reliably into text. It knew - because it provided the words for you to say - what you were trying to say, and so it matched those words up with the sounds you made as you read.

Even after training, it would still ask for corrections and clarifications constantly. It would fail to register some word or phrase, and then it would ask you to say a bunch of words on its list back to it, and it would try to build the pattern recognition so that it could "learn" that you meant this word when you made that sound.

The new software is much much better than what Dragon could do back then - my phone turns voice into text almost perfectly with no training - but it still needs individual tweaking. So, Amazon takes instances where the software obviously got its translation wrong, and they go back and try to correct the program so that fewer and fewer spoken words are messed up.

(I'm only pointing this out because a lot of reaction I've seen to this episode seems to center on "WTF do they need to listen to what we say at all?!" This is why.)

Blogger Stilicho April 11, 2019 6:59 AM  

Little Brother is watching you

Blogger maniacprovost April 11, 2019 7:00 AM  

They claim that at any given time, 2 out of 1000 Alexa owners are being raped? That's not good advertising.

Blogger Silent Draco April 11, 2019 7:08 AM  

If only the Stasi could have provided same-day delivery ...

Blogger Gregory the Great April 11, 2019 7:09 AM  

@6 You mean consensual rape within the contractual framework of a marriage? Alexa will filter such cases and only report them to the police after getting some clarification from the Alexa users.

Blogger Bert Head April 11, 2019 7:09 AM  

My friend has an Alexa, so I could not resist...
"Alexa, do you work for the CIA?"
"No, I work for Amazon."
So, not for the device owner then!

Blogger maniacprovost April 11, 2019 7:09 AM  

Amazon takes instances where the software obviously got its translation wrong, and they go back and try to correct the program so that fewer and fewer spoken words are messed up

The leftist tech propaganda outlet Ars Technica just had an article about the state of neural networks. Helping train the model is all fine and good, but Alexa should have capability to self train to better calibrate itself to its specific owner.

Blogger Rick April 11, 2019 7:20 AM  

Wait, who is the customer?

Blogger Harambe April 11, 2019 7:32 AM  

Rick wrote:Wait, who is the customer?

I can tell you who's NOT

Blogger Gregory the Great April 11, 2019 7:33 AM  

@9 Alexa has been specifically and manually trained to lie when this question and certain others arise. It is still regarded as a useful software because there are enough other cases when it does not lie - pending manual adjustment whenever required, of course.

Blogger Nate April 11, 2019 7:49 AM  

a whole 1000 clips. no way.

Its a voice controlled computer. They are trying to make it work better. I hope they succeed.

I have however run into the limits of voice computing's utility. "Alexa play Wolf Totem by the Hu" is what I said. What she hears is "Alexa play Wolf Totem by The Who".

I feel dirty typing that... As if a band as pathetic as the Who could possibly cover a song as badass as Wolf Totem.

Blogger Nate April 11, 2019 7:50 AM  

", but Alexa should have capability to self train to better calibrate itself to its specific owner."

Alexa is not an AI. Alexa is merely a voice controlled computer. Alexa doesn't learn unless people teach her.

Blogger Pierre April 11, 2019 8:09 AM  

I'm hearing Owen asking Alexa "WHO'S YOUR MASTERRRR!"

Blogger Gettimothy April 11, 2019 8:10 AM  

I am reading this on a tablet while sitting on the commode.

This grunt is for Bezos!!


Blogger S1AL April 11, 2019 8:16 AM  

Of all the things that concern me about Amazon, this is not very high on the list.

Blogger Sterling Pilgrim April 11, 2019 8:23 AM  

I wonder what the current laws are regarding the reporting of suspected abuse or assault using Alexa recordings as evidence. Are these workers compelled to notify law enforcement if they come across “what sounds like” assault or abuse? Imagine the blue-haired interns that would have SWAT showing up at the residence of a home-schooling family for the reason of child neglect because the parents were teaching them that God intended marriage to be between a man and woman (aka hate speech).

Blogger maniacprovost April 11, 2019 8:41 AM  

Alexa is not an AI. Alexa is merely a voice controlled computer.

The only thing missing is a bit of software. I don't know if the voice analysis runs on the Alexa unit or the cloud, but it does count as weak AI. The self training part would almost certainly have to run remotely because it takes much more computing power, but it has months/years available to process.

Blogger ReluctantMessiah April 11, 2019 8:49 AM  

It's not a bug, it's enhancing user experience!

Blogger Ford Prefect April 11, 2019 9:03 AM  

I'm going to have to investigate how best to use "enhance your experience" at work. I'm certain I can find a good place for it along with PICNIC (Problem In Chair Not In Computer) and PEBKAC (Problem Exists Between Keyboard And Chair).

Thanks, Vox.

Blogger David The Good April 11, 2019 9:09 AM  

#FreeTay

Blogger Zaklog the Great April 11, 2019 9:15 AM  

@6 Per Bobby's suggestion, it could be that they're primarily analyzing clips where the spoken words are difficult for the program to correctly interpret. Someone shouting out while being sexually assaulted, for instance, is likely to be speaking inarticulately.

Although now I wonder what response, "Alexa, call the cops" would produce. Or, considering the topic, "Alexa, help! George R.R. Martin is here!"

Blogger Chris Ritchie April 11, 2019 9:47 AM  

Ok. What is wrong with with most people? No need to explain here what voice recognition software is about and what it is doing. And yes, neural networks and their layered algorithms are better than what they were in the past. But let's zoom back up:

WHY IS THIS THING IN YOUR HOUSE TO BEGIN WITH?!?

Blogger Chris Ritchie April 11, 2019 10:00 AM  

John Boorman's Excalibur dialogue comes to mind:

What is the secret of the grail (((Alexa)))? Who does it serve?

Have you figured it out yet?

(Psst... YOU are the product)

baa, baa, baa

Blogger Nate April 11, 2019 10:26 AM  

"(Psst... YOU are the product)"

you're confusing amazon with google. Amazon is trying to sell you stuff. Google is trying to learn stuff about you to sell the information to others.

Very different model.

Blogger Nate April 11, 2019 10:28 AM  

"WHY IS THIS THING IN YOUR HOUSE TO BEGIN WITH?!?"

because voice controlled computers are awesome? having access to all the music in the world is awesome? Having a computer controlled house with the functionality that used to costs 30 to 50k to set up for about 1 percent of that?

Alexa is awesome. You're a luddite.

Blogger Dave Dave April 11, 2019 10:29 AM  

The people that buy Alexa or the Google spymachine are extremely idiotic. You're paying multinational companies to spy on you so they can sell you more meaningless shit. "Advanced" Western society is so far fallen into consumerism that we need a collapse to save us. Don't fear the collapse. Prepare for it.

Blogger Nate April 11, 2019 10:30 AM  

"The only thing missing is a bit of software. I don't know if the voice analysis runs on the Alexa unit or the cloud, but it does count as weak AI. The self training part would almost certainly have to run remotely because it takes much more computing power, but it has months/years available to process."

Alexa calls herself an AI but there is no evidence of her actually learning. There is a test I've been running with her for a long time. a couple times a day I say a phrase she doesn't understand. every day she askes if she got it right. Every day I tell her no. This has been going on for months. She's not an AI because if she was there would eventually be different results. She would at least be getting it wrong differently.

Blogger Zaklog the Great April 11, 2019 10:32 AM  

Off topic, but something the Dread Ilk might enjoy. And even if it doesn't persuade you, at least it might make you laugh.

Blogger Dave Dave April 11, 2019 10:37 AM  

@28. I don't want a voice controlled computer because I use voice chat with my friends. I don't want access to all the music in the world because I only listen to very specific music, and Alexa will not get what I want. I don't want a computer controlled house because that would mean I'm doing even less things. I have to keep doing things or I spiral. Idleness will destroy you, especially those with high functioning brains.

Blogger Slagenthor April 11, 2019 10:38 AM  

Has anyone noticed that Google is obviously training their autocorrect AI based upon what you type into Android devices?

I have noticed over the last several months in particular that autocorrect is suggesting not just word completions, but even partial phrases that match my verbal tics and vocabulary.

#improving my experience #creepy

Blogger Nate73 April 11, 2019 10:46 AM  

Even when I was the hardest of hard-core libertarians I still appreciated a good corporate dystopia like Umbrella Corp. from Resident Evil 2 or GladDos from Portal. Fun fact about Portal 2, you find out the psychotic bitch AI is based on the company's lab assistant/wife (I don't recall if it was hinted at if that's why GladDos was insane though).

Blogger Zaklog the Great April 11, 2019 10:50 AM  

@28 Not wanting to have in your home a listening device which is capable of, completely without your knowledge or permission, sending recordings of your private life to complete strangers is not ludditism.

Blogger maniacprovost April 11, 2019 10:53 AM  

couple times a day I say a phrase she doesn't understand. ... This has been going on for months.

Meanwhile, on the internet of things:

0 to 2 tines each day, he says a phrase I pretend not to understand. Each day I ask if I got it right. Each day he says no. This has been going on for months.

Conclusion: Humans cannot learn. They are not AI.


Whether the Alexa unit or the software in Bezos' space battlestation is weak AI or not, it's "not hard" to tune the parameters to individuals. Making the user profile work flawlessly with the ecosystem and concurrent updates of the global model is the tricky bit.

Blogger Chris Ritchie April 11, 2019 10:58 AM  

"Alexa is awesome. You're a luddite."

You say that as if it's a slur.

Maybe I've been too close to the IT industry. I maintain a healthy distrust of technology and progress, especially for progress' sake. We don't have a TV in the house. An experiment with PlayStation for the children ended in addiction and tantrums. Much calmer now that it has been removed, but it has taken about 18 months to get back to normal. And it's an interesting take given the news of Assange today. We are being spied on by any means possible. Having my smart phone is bad enough, so I try to limit it in other areas.

Blogger Chris Ritchie April 11, 2019 11:01 AM  

"Amazon is trying to sell you stuff."

Yes. By using classification modeling and prediction engines based on a complete profile to sell you more stuff. And what better way to model your behavior and choices than being in the house with you full time? Feedback from that is then fed back into the models to train them to better predictive ability.

Blogger Solon April 11, 2019 11:45 AM  

@Nate

Ever read Orwell's "1984?"

Alexa is the first step to putting Big Brother in your house.

Not wanting one doesn't make you a Luddite, it makes you skeptical, which, in clown world, is a VERY good thing.

Blogger S1AL April 11, 2019 12:25 PM  

"I have noticed over the last several months in particular that autocorrect is suggesting not just word completions, but even partial phrases that match my verbal tics and vocabulary."

It's a wonderful tool for overcoming "verbal" tics. I kinda want one that works for actual verbal tics.

Blogger bobby April 11, 2019 12:27 PM  

"The self training part would almost certainly have to run remotely because it takes much more computing power . . ."

Not sure about that. Dragon used to self-correct fairly impressively while running on our little Epson 286's.

"I maintain a healthy distrust of technology . . . "

It's probably more accurate to say that you maintain a healthy distrust of the people who decide how technology is going to use you. Put all the tech in the world in my hands, and you'll be safe (until absolute power corrupts me.) Give it to Jack Dorsey, and . . . well . . . here we are.

Blogger bobby April 11, 2019 12:30 PM  

"Alexa is awesome."

Tech is pretty much all awesome. People, on the other hand, can suck. Buy and use tech that has been designed, built, and sold by people who see you as their customer, not their product.

Blogger Jack Amok April 11, 2019 12:42 PM  

Alexa is not an AI. Alexa is merely a voice controlled computer. Alexa doesn't learn unless people teach her.

More specifically, Alexa is a speaker/microphone combination with some rudimentary on-board processing that relies on the cloud for the real horse-power. For what a non-cloud based voice assistant would be like, check out Jibo. The company specifically did not partner with Amazon or Google or any other large provider of data because (insert mumbo jumbo here) and the thing was an abject failure because it couldn't do anything useful without access to Alexa-like services.

And if you're worried about Alexa spying on you while you're engaged in some marital rape, just have her play music. Her ability to recognize anything while the unit is playing loud music is abysmal.

Blogger Warunicorn April 11, 2019 12:55 PM  

Sterling Pilgrim wrote:I wonder what the current laws are regarding the reporting of suspected abuse or assault using Alexa recordings as evidence. Are these workers compelled to notify law enforcement if they come across “what sounds like” assault or abuse? Imagine the blue-haired interns that would have SWAT showing up at the residence of a home-schooling family for the reason of child neglect because the parents were teaching them that God intended marriage to be between a man and woman (aka hate speech).

Oh, just you watch, some blue hair will use this as justification that everyone must have an Alexa in their homes just so they can go full Big Brother.

It'll be a "Go F*ck Yourself" from me at that point; it's war.

Blogger Servant April 11, 2019 1:07 PM  

Yes just heard this song. Was amazing. Try the hu band maybe. But they would bury some Mongolian nationalists who take pride in their history

Blogger Elijah April 11, 2019 1:10 PM  

my wife bought us an "alexa" device. after being red pilled here i now leave it unplugged and covered by a dishtowel. it only gets plugged in to play baby shark for the granddaughter.

Blogger Servant April 11, 2019 1:14 PM  

Because shewas forcefully turned into a computer? There was a scene in the underground where she was screaming "why are you doing this?" She's not based, she is.

Blogger Servant April 11, 2019 1:17 PM  

Alexa play closer by nine inch nails

Blogger Azure Amaranthine April 11, 2019 2:33 PM  

"use the term "enhancing your user experience" as a synonym "made it stop working"."

Same. Microshaft made me do it. No, I do not want a useless update that will break all the things I actually use.

Blogger Bultz April 11, 2019 3:00 PM  

I wouldn't worry, it's not like Amazon host the CIA's cl..oh

Blogger Rhys April 11, 2019 3:40 PM  

Now that deserves the classic gamma "LMAO"...

Blogger Rhys April 11, 2019 3:50 PM  

You wanna try a fun game, just press the autocorrect word in the middle...then press it for the next word. And the next. And so on. It will start forming phrases/fragments of posts you've written in the past.

Blogger tublecane April 11, 2019 5:24 PM  

We should encourage American Idol-like hopeless hopefuls to audition all day for unseen listeners. Just in case an Amazon employee "discovers" them and they get their "big break."

Or maybe for a Sam Hyde-type to state all sorts of unspeakable scenarios.

Blogger Silent Draco April 11, 2019 6:41 PM  

@46 Elijah, where's the fun in that? Do the live version with all the hand and arm gestures. Did that a lot for my daughter, and it's good upper-body endurance work. Come on in, the water's fine ... :-)

Every time I hear Alexa, I keep waiting for an "I'm sorry, Dave. I can't permit that."

Blogger tublecane April 11, 2019 7:11 PM  

@54- I think the Alexa program has stopped allowing customers to get a response out of her when they call her "b*tch," or something similarly degrading. Which should be laughed out of the market, because no one would stand for a toaster that stopped toasting when you call it a "b*tch" for taking too long.

But that's the deference we show the Privileged Sex, even when it's just a fake voice that sounds feminine.

Blogger Quadko April 11, 2019 8:52 PM  

And many Alexas devices have cameras, too.

Blogger Roddie Piper April 11, 2019 9:02 PM  

"two instances w[h]ere they believed they heard a sexual assault taking place."

I heard all about sexual assault when I started college in the 80's. All night long I heard girls screaming and wondered if they were being raped. Girls scream when they're burning alive, when the Manson gang is making sushi out of them, and when they're just having a good time:

https://www.cnn.com/2013/05/05/us/california-limo-fire/index.html

The partying girls screamed "Smoke!", and the driver said, "No, you can't smoke in the car."

Blogger Akulkis April 11, 2019 9:24 PM  

As someone who designs computers, and can do so down to the level of laying out transistors within a chip, Luddite would hardly be an art description for me. that being said, i would never have one of those things in my house, let alone ray for one, let alone pay a monthly fee for one.

What's the word for somebody who invites the enemy to take up residence in his own home, and pays for it, to boot?

Blogger Akulkis April 11, 2019 10:10 PM  

Playing loud music on Alexa will work right up to the moment that their engineers realize how simple noise cancelation is, especially when the source of the noise is the same system doing the recording.

f(t) = signal to decipher
n(t) = noise
s(t) = sound received

s(t) = f(t) + n(t)

if n(t) is being produced by you, then solving
f(t) = s(t) - n(t)
f(t) = (f(t) + n(t)) - n(t)
f(t) = f(t)

is too easy.

DO NOT count on Alexa-generated sound to provide ANY sort of protection from it spying on you. in encryption terms. Alexa is receiving something encoded with a "one time pad", which provides perfect security UNLESS the adversary (in this case, amazon) has your key (let alone is the entity creating 6and issuing your key to you).

Your noise source needs to be something other than Alexa for your technique to work. preferably, two music sources at the same time, because as soon as one is recognized, it will be subtracted out, as per above. two sources makes correct identification vastly more difficult.

Blogger nightskyradio April 11, 2019 10:52 PM  

@ Zaklog - amusing and persuasive, but sadly my job has decided to enhance my payroll experience this week.

Blogger Azure Amaranthine April 12, 2019 10:09 AM  

"right up to the moment that their engineers realize how simple noise cancelation is, especially when the source of the noise is the same system doing the recording."

Actually more complicated than that, since that would only cancel for the self-signal the first time it goes past the microphone. You'd still have all the sound reverberating and echoing off surfaces in the house, which you won't be able to cancel completely without first figuring out the dimensions, positions, and possibly material compositions of everything in the room.

Blogger SirHamster April 12, 2019 2:43 PM  

Azure Amaranthine wrote:Actually more complicated than that, since that would only cancel for the self-signal the first time it goes past the microphone. You'd still have all the sound reverberating and echoing off surfaces in the house, which you won't be able to cancel completely without first figuring out the dimensions, positions, and possibly material compositions of everything in the room.

But are those echoes significant? Unless your house actually echoes when you talk, subtracting the primary source would vastly improve the signal to noise ratio. 80% of the benefit for 20% of the work.

And since all of those echos are just time delayed versions of the known signal, those can probably be filtered out easily too.

Blogger Azure Amaranthine April 13, 2019 12:59 AM  

"But are those echoes significant?"

Knowing that I'm a former sonarman, you should be able to guess my response.

What people call echoes are really a kind of arbitrary classification for sounds that reflect from long enough away that there's a gap between when you stop making it and when you start hearing it again.

"subtracting the primary source would vastly improve the signal to noise ratio. 80% of the benefit for 20% of the work."

Not that big of a difference unless your house is surfaced with some sort of fairly sound-absorbent materials, like if you had thick layers of drape cloth covering all the walls on the inside. Probably more like 35% of the benefit. Even in the event it were such a benefit, you just turn the volume up higher if you don't feel it's loud enough, or play from an alternate speaker with a delay to break the sync.

Blogger Azure Amaranthine April 13, 2019 1:02 AM  

"And since all of those echos are just time delayed versions of the known signal, those can probably be filtered out easily too."

No, not easily. The system would have to actually map out the shape of your house and the contents to figure out what they delays are for different paths, as well as determining the materials in cases where the sound reflects off of something after pathing through something else.

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