It May Be Time to Get Rid of Your Beloved Alexa: Newly Revealed Blueprints Show Device Will Start Listening to and Recording Everything You Say Rather Than Waiting for its Name to be Called

Alexa works by listening out for a "wakeword" that tells the device to turn on its extended speech recognition systems in order to respond to spoken commands. (AP/Elaine Thompson)
Alexa works by listening out for a “wakeword” that tells the device to turn on its extended speech recognition systems in order to respond to spoken commands. (AP/Elaine Thompson)

A newly revealed patent application filed by Amazon is raising privacy concerns over an envisaged upgrade to the company’s smart speaker systems. This change would mean that, by default, the devices end up listening to and recording everything you say in their presence.

Alexa, Amazon’s virtual assistant system that runs on the company’s Echo series of smart speakers, works by listening out for a “wakeword” that tells the device to turn on its extended speech recognition systems in order to respond to spoken commands.

On Amazon’s devices, the wakeword is “Alexa,” but similar systems control how Apple devices work (“Hey Siri”) and also Google’s (“Hey Google”), not to mention products from other tech companies.

In theory, Alexa-enabled devices will only record what you say directly after the wakeword, which is then uploaded to Amazon, where remote servers use speech recognition to deduce your meaning, then relay commands back to your local speaker.

But one issue in this flow of events, as Amazon’s recently revealed patent application argues, is it means that anything you say before the wakeword isn’t actually heard.

“A user may not always structure a spoken command in the form of a wakeword followed by a command (eg. ‘Alexa, play some music’),” the Amazon authors explain in their patent application, which was filed back in January, but only became public last week.

“Instead, a user may include the command before the wakeword (eg. ‘Play some music, Alexa’) or even insert the wakeword in the middle of a command (eg. ‘Play some music, Alexa, the Beatles please’). While such phrasings may be natural for a user, current speech processing systems are not configured to handle commands that are not preceded by a wakeword.”

To overcome this barrier, Amazon is proposing an effective workaround: simply record everything the user says all the time, and figure it out later.

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SOURCE: Peter Dockrill
ScienceAlert

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