Balancing Advanced AI Conversations and Data Privacy.
- Tech advancements. Amazon is upgrading Alexa with generative AI for more human-like and intuitive interactions.
- Data concerns. The new features raise further questions about Alexa’s data privacy and security measures.
- Feature rollout. Upgrades are not yet live, but users can ask to be notified when new features are enabled.
In a move designed to make Alexa simpler and more intuitive for users, Amazon announced, at its annual Devices & Services Event this Wednesday, that it was upgrading its entire Alexa and Echo lines with generative AI. Amazon is adding new voice assistant features through the use of a custom-built large language model (LLM) that has been optimized for voice interactions.
This new, generative AI-enhanced Alexa, according to Amazon, will be able to have human-like conversations, and will have the ability to reason, understand intent and context, and continue conversations from where the user left off.
While the announcement has been met with excitement, others are apprehensive about what this means for data security. Since the release, there have been many concerns raised around platforms like Alexa, Google Assistant and others systems that have always-on listening capabilities.
Alexa Gets Conversational
After initializing the conversation mode by saying the phrase “Alexa, let’s chat,” users can have full-blown conversations with Alexa. The device will use its camera, the Alexa user’s visual ID, and its previously configured settings to determine when someone is speaking to it.
In the presentation at the Amazon Devices event, Amazon presented Alexa saying a sentence as it would have delivered it in 2014, and compared it with the upcoming 2024 AI-driven model. Not only was the pronunciation better, Alexa exhibited a wider change of expression in its voice that was much more natural and realistic. You can listen to this demonstration on Amazon’s blog page. Additionally, the upgraded Alexa will be connected to hundreds of thousands of real-world (IoT) devices and services via APIs.
Related Article: What Is Conversational AI? More Than Just Chatbots
Alexa and Data Privacy Issues
This isn’t the first time that Alexa has come under fire due to privacy issues. On Sept. 11, 2023, Fox News published an article about privacy concerns with Alexa, and stated that researchers from the University of Washington, University of California-Davis, University of California-Irvine and Northeastern University found that Amazon and third parties collect data from user interactions with Alexa through Echo smart speakers — and share that data with as many as 41 advertising partners.
In 2019 The New York Times published an article titled “Amazon’s Alexa Never Stops Listening to You. Should You Worry?” which highlighted the fact that Amazon is always listening for its wake word “Alexa” and that it sometimes even responds when it hears the wake word on a television or video.
Having an always-on microphone on doesn’t sit well with everyone. Should consumers be worried? “As Alexa will need to leverage always-on listening to understand when users are speaking with others and not Alexa, this exposes the device to an unprecedented range of audio input that puts people at massive risk. While Amazon has robust security practices, vulnerabilities are always possible, and therefore there’s always a chance that personally identifiable information such as passwords, PIN numbers, social security numbers, medical information, or other personal data benignly transmitted through Alexa ends up in the hands of nefarious actors,” said Preston So, author of “Voice Content and Usability.”
Now, given that AI-powered Alexa will be able to continue having a conversation without hearing its wake word again, this concerns users who are worried that the device is listening to entire conversations. On its blog website, without getting into specifics, Amazon said that “As with all our products, we will design experiences to protect our customers’ privacy and security, and to give them control and transparency.”
As an Alexa owner/user I do worry about the security risks of sensitive information leaking to some nefarious actors. As a result I keep it in an office where I write and I avoid having conversations in that room. That said, I’ve heard Alexa pick up my conversations from down the hall. That doesn’t give me a warm and fuzzy feeling.
So, who is a voice interface designer and voice practitioner, says people are often surprised to find out he he doesn’t have any smart speakers or listening devices in his home. He believes that voice capabilities are better limited to single interactions and conversations within strict parameters dictated by the user. “If you’re worried about your privacy and security as Alexa broadens its AI capabilities, the best advice is simply not to have one in your home, especially in rooms where private conversations are taking place, or to get rid of the device you have, “ said So.
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Alexa Upgrades Not Yet Available
These upgrades are not yet available, but users can be notified by saying “Alexa, let’s chat,” and the device will respond by asking if the user wishes to be notified when the new features are enabled.
And that’s not all, there is more coming. Here is a list of the newest features coming to the Alexa/Echo lineup.
- More natural conversations
- Intuitive smart home control
- Eye gaze on Alexa
- Call translation
- Alexa Emergency Assist
- Fire TV channels comes to Echo Show
- TalkBack voice comments
- Explore with Alexa on Amazon Kids+
- Marvel and Disney character themes
- Morning routines & sleep sounds
- Map view
- Two new ways to initiate routines
- Email to Alexa
- Top connections