How Amazon Convinced Millions of People to Welcome “Listening Devices” Into Their Homes

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February 17, 2020

Whether it’s being told to turn on the lights or asked a health question, the voice known as Alexa has embedded Amazon’s technology deep in the lives of hundreds of millions of people since the company first launched its interactive Echo smart speaker in 2014. 

From the start, Amazon has marketed Alexa as a virtual assistant who helps make navigating daily life easier, more efficient and entertaining for people and families. 

But as the new FRONTLINE documentary Amazon Empire: The Rise and Reign of Jeff Bezos reports, the multi-billion-dollar company’s increasingly ubiquitous Alexa technology — which is now compatible with more than 100,000 products — doesn’t just serve the customer. It also serves a key strategic objective for Amazon itself.

“Alexa is one more way for Amazon to gather extremely valuable data,” Meredith Whittaker, co-director of the A.I. Now Institute at NYU, tells FRONTLINE in the above excerpt. “And this data collection is extremely important to this business model. It’s extremely hard to do … convincing people to just deploy something like this in their home is— it’s a brilliant trick.”

It’s one that’s helping Amazon in a quest to dominate the future — not just of commerce, but also artificial intelligence.

“They’re trying to move as intimately as possible and as quietly as possible into everyday life,” Shoshana Zuboff, author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, says in the film. “Amazon wants to have the entire environment, essentially miked… All these intimacies, all this insight is being integrated, analyzed and integrated. That is an extraordinary kind of power that has never before existed.”

In the film, which was released Feb. 18 and is now streaming online, producer and director James Jacoby presses Amazon’s head of devices, Dave Limp, on whether the company did a good enough job telling customers about Alexa’s privacy implications – including the revelation last year that Amazon employs thousands of people around the world to listen to and transcribe some voice recordings in an attempt to improve the Alexa algorithm.

We try to articulate what we’re doing with our products as clearly as we can… But if I could go back in time, and I could be more clear and the team could be more clear on how we were using human beings to annotate a small percentage of the data, I would for sure,” Limp tells Jacoby, saying that the company rapidly introduced new notifications and opt-out features once it “realized customers didn’t understand this.”

“We’re not going to always be perfect,” Limp adds, “but when we make mistakes, I think the key is that we correct them very quickly on behalf of customers.”

On its website, Amazon says that its Alexa and Echo devices are designed to protect users’ privacy. Limp disputes Jacoby’s characterization of them as “listening devices,” telling him the “wake-word” engine responsible for turning on an Echo via voice command is “not really listening; it’s detecting one thing and one thing only, which is the word you’ve said that you want to get the attention of that Echo.”  

But once the device is awake and the blue light is on, it’s recording. “The problem,” says futurist Amy Webb, “is that we forget that it’s there.”

Even one of the founders of Amazon Web Services approaches his Alexa devices with caution.

Robert Frederick, who left the company in 2006, tells FRONTLINE that he turns off his Alexa devices “whenever I want to have a private moment.”

“I don’t want certain conversations to be heard by humans,” Frederick says. “Conversations that I know for a fact are things that should not be shared, I turn off those particular listening devices.”

For more on the privacy questions that have accompanied the ascent of Amazon and its technologies, watch Amazon Empire: The Rise and Reign of Jeff Bezos. The two-hour FRONTLINE documentary investigates how Bezos, Amazon’s founder and CEO, built a business empire that is unprecedented in the history of American capitalism — and at what cost:

Amazon Empire: The Rise and Reign of Jeff Bezos premiered Tuesday, Feb. 18 on PBS stations. The full documentary is now streaming in this story, in FRONTLINE’s collection of more than 250 streaming films, on the PBS Video App, on YouTube and on-demand.

This story has been updated.


Patrice Taddonio

Patrice Taddonio, Digital Writer & Audience Development Strategist, FRONTLINE

Twitter:

@ptaddonio

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