'Amazon’s patent application for an always-on feature for Alexa, its popular voice-activated personal assistant, has raised a lot of concern. “If you’re already freaked out by the privacy implications of smart speakers like Amazon’s Echo,” says Gizmodo, “we have some bad news.” A headline in ScienceAlert is even more direct: “Newly Released Amazon Patent Shows Just How Much Creepier Alexa Can Get.” You get the idea.
But the anxiety is much ado about nothing. An Alexa that’s always listening will likely prove more useful than an Alexa that isn’t; and, in any case, always-on devices are certainly our future.
As of January 2019, Amazon had sold more than 100 million devices that include Alexa. That number is certainly dwarfed by the billions of devices that include Siri and Google Assistant. But the difference is, those features come bundled with your smartphone, which has many other uses. When you purchase an Alexa device, you are choosing to invite Amazon into your home to listen to you.
Even those who have no interest in obtaining an Alexa-linked device know how the thing works, if only from Amazon’s flood of television commercials. You say “Alexa, what’s today’s weather?” — and it tells you. Whenever Alexa hears its “wake word,” the software assumes that the user wants its attention. Thus Alexa “wakes,” listens and processes the words that follow as a command.
The difficulty arises because, in the words of the patent application, a wake word “may not always precede a spoken command, and may sometimes be included in the middle of a spoken command.” The application gives an example: “Play ‘Mother’s Little Helper’ by the Rolling Stones.” As currently configured, the system will respond if the user prefaces the request with “Alexa” (that is, “Alexa, play ‘Mother’s Little Helper’”) but not if the wake word comes at the end (that is, “Play ‘Mother’s Little Helper,’ Alexa”).
Put otherwise, Alexa as currently configured does not match the way people speak. The user must structure each command around a relatively formal grammar. The invention described in the patent application would deformalize the means for addressing the device, thus enabling Alexa to fit more easily and naturally into everyday life.
Here’s Amazon’s solution: Alexa already stores what it hears in a buffer. Under the new configuration, according to the application, once Alexa detects a wake word, “the device will go backwards through the audio in the buffer to determine the start of the utterance that includes the wakeword.” After finding what it scores as the most likely start of the command, Alexa will perform a similar calculation to find the end. The command will then be processed exactly like one that was preceded by the wake word.
It all makes a great deal of sense. Why then the concern? It seems to me that there are two potential issues.'
Read more: The future will be recorded, on your smart speaker
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