Uh-Oh! Amazon’s Alexa Could Soon Have Eyes As Well As Ears

Amazon’s Alexa device could have eyes and the ability to walk around in the near future as its creators try to enhance the product’s understanding of the world.

Despite the privacy concerns that have plagued Amazon over whether its device can record conversations, the company is planning for its digital assistants to become a proactive companion.

Amazon’s head scientist, Rohit Prasad, hinted that Alexa could soon gain sensory capabilities by fitting the devices with cameras.

Fitting the devices with cameras and essentially giving it eyes would expand how much the technology could aid humans, Prasad told the UK’s Telegraph.

‘If you think about our own intelligence, without eyes we can only do a limited set of things,’ he said.

‘But I wouldn’t speculate on whether Alexa needs arms and legs and eyes.’

Using an example of trying to plan a night out, Prasad said giving Alexa more capabilities would basically ensure everything was taken care of.

He said Alexa would be able to tell you the screening times at the cinema, purchase the movie tickets, book a restaurant reservation and even order a taxi or tell you what time to leave the house to best avoid traffic.

Prasad said those tasks would require a lot of pre-planning for a human, but the aim would be for Alexa to ‘practically help get you connected with the right skill or service’.

He also suggested giving Alexa sensory capabilities in the future if the device was to understand speech and human behavior even more.

‘As an AI researcher, intelligence and sensing go hand in hand,’ he said.

‘If you look at any AI stack, you have a bunch of sensory data, and based on that data you make some modelling, like speech recognition.

‘You model speech to convert to words or language understanding – you take the text and convert it into meaning. Then the next layer up is intelligent decisions.’

He acknowledged that some users might be standoffish given privacy concerns but said Amazon was working to make sure users could easily delete their data.

‘If you are uncomfortable, you say ‘Alexa delete what I said’ or ‘Alexa delete everything I said today’. We also launched auto delete where you can set deletion on a periodic basis like after every three months or 18 months based on your choice,’ he said.

Despite the ongoing concerns about the privacy of those who use its smart helper, Amazon recently announced a wave of new virtual assistant-powered devices – including a pair of earphones and glasses.

The technology giant unveiled a number of new Echo smart speakers, as well as the first wearables to support the voice-activated software – earphones, smart glasses and a ring.

Amazon – along with other tech firms with AI assistants – have come under scrutiny about their privacy practices in recent months following revelations about industry-wide schemes which see audio data from user interactions with software such as Alexa being listened to and analysed by human staff.

Critics accused tech companies of not clearly stating that other people may hear the recordings as part of the programs, which were carried out to help improve speech recognition technology.

In response to the outcry, Amazon said it would give users the option to opt-out of having humans analyse their audio, while others have ‘paused’ their programs entirely.

Amazon devices boss Dave Limp said last month the company was committed to user privacy and that it was ‘foundational’ to every device the firm makes.

He also announced several new Alexa features he said had been designed to give users more control over their data.

It includes the ability to ask Alexa what the assistant heard and a new auto-delete tool which will automatically wipe all a user’s saved audio recordings every three or 18 months.

HOW DOES ALEXA WORK AND WHY ARE PEOPLE CONCERNED OVER PRIVACY? 

HOW IT WORKS:

Any time audio is sent to the cloud, a visual indicator appears on the Echo device – a light ring on Amazon Echo will turn blue or a blue bar will appear on Echo Show.

Amazon also says that voice recordings are kept until a customer chooses to delete them.

The recordings are used to increase the diversity with which Alexa is trained to help it better understand customer requests.

For example, differentiating between YouTube and U2 and using historical context, such as the Olympics, to know what the user is referring to.

Amazon maintains the device is not activated until the wake word is said. This can be configured to be Alexa, Echo or Computer.

It also records when the microphone button is manually pressed.

PRIVACY CONCERNS: 

Amazon devices have previously been activated when they’re not wanted – meaning the devices could be listening.

Millions are reluctant to invite the devices and their powerful microphones into their homes out of concern that their conversations are being heard.

Amazon devices rely on microphones listening out for a key word, which can be triggered by accident and without their owner’s realization.

The camera on the Echo Spot, which doubles up as a ‘smart alarm’, will also probably be facing directly at the user’s bed.

The device has such sophisticated microphones it can hear people talking from across the room – even if music is playing. Fraudsters could then use this live audio feed to collect sensitive information from the device.

HOW TO TURN ALEXA SETTINGS OFF:

Open the Alexa app on your phone. Tap the menu button on the top-left of the screen.

Select ‘Alexa Account’. Choose ‘Alexa Privacy’. Select ‘Manage how your data improves Alexa’.

Turn the button next to ‘Help Develop New Features’ to off. Turn off the button next to your name under ‘Use Messages to Improve Transcriptions’.

SOURCE: Daily Mail, Emily Crane