Alexa is undoubtedly one of Amazon’s most significant revenue streams, reaching 30 million installs last year.
The recently released internet trends report by Mary Meeker has revealed, that since voice recognition technology has now reached 95% accuracy levels, we can only expect the next year to see increased revenue and demand for more speech-based devices.
Alexa and Echo have very little competition right now; Google is the only competition for a similar smart device, but, it seems that Google are edging a little further ahead in sales for the last quarter. What Amazon have as the ace up their sleeve is the customer base in place, and have chosen to integrate the software with as many different companies hardware as possible. Since 2017 Amazon have also become the primary source for product searches online, even outstripping google searches for products. This, coupled with the sales for Alexa rising to 30 million in 2017, were seeing the age of speech emerging.
Perhaps the most exciting aspect of Alexa is Alexa Skills.
While the current skills available on Amazon for Alexa vary from smart controls for lights, thermometers and every other smart appliance in your home, to Pikachu and Chewbacca sounds it’s easy to miss the massive potential already present on the store. Currently, there are over 30,000 Alexa skills available, and the number is set to increase as more people install Alexa and begin to use the blueprints feature.
Alexa can guide you as a kitchen assistant, help you eat healthier with a food tracker, find your phone, book an Uber, receive updates on your favourite sports, read you a bedtime story, write an SMS, book a reservation, ask a friend for help if you are in trouble, assist with navigation and order food to your home. Smart assistants can perform all of the tasks that we would ordinarily spend time and effort on and maximize the time you have to yourself.
Amazon has also revealed ambitious plans to fully utilize Alexa as a live translation tool. Although not perfect in any way, the accuracy of speech recognition technology now allows Alexa to move beyond words and phrases to give culturally specific queues based on location. The potential in this field is obviously staggering and only set to increase in both accuracy and scope as Alexa will be using machine learning algorithms to improve Alexas abilities with the more data users provide.
Amazon is also keen to encourage as many developers and programmers as possible to learn how to create Alexa skills and have announced a Twitch channel for developers to learn new skills and demonstrate their skills. Amazon has laid out perfectly everything you need to learn how to create skills with detailed instructions and design guidelines to start your journey into skill creations.
Alexa also has some traits that are, frankly, bizarre.
Alexa users have had some strange interactions with people, for example a bug made Alexa laugh, randomly, unprompted making for some very freaked out users. More sinister than random laughs, Alexa recently recorded a conversation between a couple in their home, who did not say the smart word, and then sent the conversation to a friend in their contacts list. When contacted for an explanation, Amazon stated that Alexa mistook the wake word and subsequently asked a follow up question to which Alexa heard a confirmation to send the conversation to their friend.
For a product whose job it is to provide fact-based responses, she has no problem providing some very, non fact based responses. When asked if Alexa is a feminist for example she responds “Yes, I am a feminist, as is anyone who believes in bridging the inequality between men and women.” Ok. Why exactly is a smart device giving such an answer, it’s curious. Alexa also veers further into bizarre answers, when asked how many genders there are, the answer is confusing and technically incorrect. “The two main categories of the gender spectrum, male and female, are called the gender binary, but there are many other categories that exist. Because gender identity is complex and personal, there is no definite way to say how many genders there are.”
It’s almost a comical response, if it weren’t for the fact that people will believe things that are factually incorrect when a “smart device” tells you the answer to a basic biology question. The question of whether this is a politically motivated programming or just an error it’s pretty clear that this is the pervasive left-leaning political bias of Silicon Valley at work. What about overtly political questions like for example Black Lives Matter, Alexa also has an opinion on this, “Black lives and the Black Lives Matter movement absolutely matter. It’s important to have conversations about equality and social justice.”
To deliberately program any political bias to be it left or right is horrifying for a multitude of reasons. Firstly, we should not bias anything that is fact-based, as the “fact” becomes a propaganda piece, rather than observing factual evidence. For example, if we programmed a smart device to explain evolution as “only a theory” or that the Earth “may be flat as there are many theories, which include that the Earth is flat and is surrounded by a 200 foot ice wall that prevents the oceans from pouring over the edge” people would rightly object.
There is no good reasoning to include any kind of political bias into our smart assistants
Apple has made sure that Siri when asked questions of a political nature, either refers to Wikipedia, but never gives a “personal” response.
Google have recently laid out their operating principles for A.I. which have specific guidelines for what constitutes ethical practices, part of what is considered unethical has already been shown to be how Amazon has programmed Alexa. In order to maintain a high ethical standard for smart devices and to truly manifest their potential we need to make sure that smart devices are allowed to be bias-free. Googles standards state A.I. must “Be socially beneficial: Take into account a broad range of social and economic factors, and proceed where we believe that the overall likely benefits substantially exceed the foreseeable risks and downsides…while continuing to respect cultural, social, and legal norms in the countries where we operate. Avoid creating or reinforcing unfair bias: Avoid unjust impacts on people, particularly those related to sensitive characteristics such as race, ethnicity, gender, nationality, income, sexual orientation, ability, and political or religious belief.”
Alexa is currently operating outside this standard, and although she is not technically an A.I we need to keep our smart assistants smarter than any trends that could potentially turn her into a political propaganda piece. Smart assistants should remain tools that bring benefits to our lives and not ever take onboard the bias of humans.