Search results for voice commands need to match what people actually say, instead of what marketers think they’ll say. Consumers won’t follow your rules and will want voice interfaces to find “things to do” instead of “entertainment,” for instance. Hence, Amazon is working to ensure its algorithms match consumers’ Alexa commands.
Matt Day , Giles Turner and Natalia Drozdiak write:
“Amazon.com Inc. employs thousands of people around the world to help improve the Alexa digital assistant powering its line of Echo speakers. The team listens to voice recordings captured in Echo owners’ homes and offices. The recordings are transcribed, annotated and then fed back into the software as part of an effort to eliminate gaps in Alexa’s understanding of human speech and help it better respond to commands.”
What that means for marketers is Amazon will be able to tell marketers how to best have their products and services found when consumers use Alexa to search for them.
Humans Listen for Idioms, Garbled Speech and More
Algorithms weren’t adequately identifying certain searches. For instance, one transcriber ended up tagging “Taylor Swift” searches for the singer’s results, Bloomberg reports. It’s unclear what results that command had been getting.
Importantly for marketers who don’t understand idioms and speech patterns in other countries, Amazon’s workers are around the globe.
“The team comprises a mix of contractors and full-time Amazon employees who work in outposts from Boston to Costa Rica, India and Romania, according to the people, who signed nondisclosure agreements barring them from speaking publicly about the program. They work nine hours a day, with each reviewer parsing as many as 1,000 audio clips per shift, according to two workers based at Amazon’s Bucharest office.”
alexa play "yeah, i said it" by rihanna pic.twitter.com/7CMkF8Cv4G
— m💫 // 38 (@indeliblefriend) April 12, 2019
I asked both Alexa and Siri “what time is the basketball game tonight?“ Alexa gave the correct answer. Siri gave the result of a game in China. WTF Apple? pic.twitter.com/LPt3jdYYTb
— David Shulman (@SoFlaEstatePlan) April 8, 2019
Consumers’ Privacy Concerns
Even though consumers are now learning that Amazon is working to ensure garbled commands get the search results users want, they’re now concerned about their privacy. On top of humans listening to their voice queries, the Bloomberg article revealed that workers talk among themselves with “internal chat rooms” and share audio for another opinion or simply because it’s amusing.
The workers told Bloomberg that Amazon stopped them from reporting to the police what they believed was a sexual assault, though, citing user privacy.
Amazon tells Bloomberg the human assistance is aimed at improving the customer experience, and helps “train our speech recognition and natural language understanding systems.”
Bloomberg: Amazon employees are listening to what you say to Alexa!!!
My family: pic.twitter.com/byOTBe8v1v
— Andrea Domen (@theDOMENatrix) April 12, 2019
Your friendly reminder that any machine/#robot/#AI is never a singular entity - it is always a collective entity embedded in techno-social networks with other machines, humans and organisations. We need to reconceptualise this to resolve #privacy issues.https://t.co/8KLtaJDqmh
— Garfield Benjamin (@g8enjamin) April 11, 2019
So there’s a cautionary tale here. While the Amazon Echo is popular with consumers, it seems as though devices that they believe are violating their privacy don’t do well. It’s one thing to think a device is recording you. It’s another to know it.
While the revelation that humans are listening to humans shows Amazon is supplementing its algorithms with real-world knowledge, it’s also caused alarm in some circles.
Though unlikely, if consumers stop purchasing voice interfaces or using them, it could impact the flow of information to marketers.
So it’s not much of a surprise that on Friday, it was the No. 75 seller on Amazon.com’s “Computer Input Devices” list. This, despite only being a few months old.
In January, Engadget reported Facebook employees were placing five-star reviews for Portal on Amazon.
Kris Holt writes:
“Whether or not the reviews are genuine, this isn't a good look for Facebook. After a rough year, the last thing the company needs is a situation with even a hint of impropriety surrounding it.
“Meanwhile, if you suspected the positive reviews coming from inside the house are helping Facebook's products, they don't seem to be faring too well. Amazon classifies them as input devices for some strange reason, and Portal is currently number 32 on that sales ranking, behind an array of styluses (including Apple Pencil), mice and drawing tablets. It's four spots lower than a $650 Wacom pen display monitor. Portal+ is in 158th place.”
Portal+ didn’t show up on the list when I looked on Friday.
Human Transcription of Voice Interface Commands Seems to Be Part of the Voice Search Evolution
Google’s long been working to optimize its search results for human speech patterns, but hasn’t revealed if it’s been using voice recordings interpreted by humans in order to do so.
In Amazon’s admission of the practice, the company’s reassurance to consumers that they aren’t in danger of having their privacy violated reveals the conundrum. Consumers who were saying Amazon already violated their privacy may not accept that it did so in order for them to find Taylor Swift songs more easily — they want “1989,” not “1984.”
What do you think, marketers?
Please respond in the comments section below.
Related story: Finding 'Things to Do'