The Myth That Alexa is Listening To You
DISCLAIMER: I work for Amazon, but this post (and all my posts) is purely my opinion and based on no more information than the general public. I don’t work for the Amazon Echo team, nor do I have proprietary information about the Alexa software or devices.
Roughly twice a year, a friend tells me a story about a private conversation they were just having with someone, and how minutes after that conversation an ad popped up on their newsfeed about that exact topic. Let me address this from a developer/technical point of view.
Reality #1: Conversations are VERY difficult for humans to follow, let alone machines.
We are so very early in machine learning, Think about the last week when you said, “OK, Google” or “Hey Siri” or “Alexa.” Were you understood every single time? Did you have to repeat yourself? Did you get fucking frustrated because Siri couldn’t answer your question?
You get frustrated because the machines are not there yet. They know as much as they have been trained to understand, which is not much. It’s definitely amazing technology, but it’s nowhere near as sophisticated as it will be in a decade or two from now.
Reality #2: Human conversations are banal.
Our conversations are really quite boring to the rest of the world. We speak to our loved ones in partial sentences and in “coded” language that only our loved ones would understand. Need I say more?
Reality #3: We should be seeing a hell of a lot more ads.
Think about all of the stuff you’ve talked about this weekend–TVs, house remodeling, restaurants, stores, places you want to visit. Did you see ads about that stuff? I’m guessing not. If the machines are listening to every word, then you should have been seeing a steady flow flow of ads following every conversation.
Reality #4: If the machines are really listening, then they should be hearing the TV, movies and all the other stuff we listen to.
If I’m binge-watching The Sopranos, then I should be getting tons of ads for sausages and espresso.
Breaking Bad? Then I should be flooded with ads for chemistry sets, Zaxby’s and Chic-Fil-A.
What about all the commercials that we’re watching? When I watch my 18th Geico commercial for the night, why doesn’t my Facebook newsfeed bombard me with insurance commercials?
Reality #5: There are a lot of conversations going on at any given time.
We all want to think that every damn word that drips from our mouth is golden, but in reality, there’s a lot of people talkin’ at one time. In our house, we have a dozen Amazon Echo devices tied to my personal account and there are several conversations and TV shows happening in at least three rooms at a time. Evan is 11 years old and he plays PS4 while chatting with friends online in a room with an Amazon Echo Dot, and I’ve never once got an ad for guns or ammo or camouflage.
Reality #6: Our fingers give up way more information than our mouths.
This is the really the problem. Facebook and Google don’t care what you talk about. They only know what you click and like. And they know who you are friends with and they know what your friends click and like. It doesn’t take a lot of computing power for them to figure you out. Every time you like a post or a comment, you’ve just given them one more piece of information about you.
If my friend is a fisherman, and I like all of his fishing photos, FB will realize I am interested in fishing and ads will target me about fishing,
We think we don’t Google stuff, but we do. We forget that we like pages and posts on Facebook and then we’re surprised when we get targeted for ads
Stop pretending like there is an eye in the sky watching you, and start being more self-aware of where you click.
Every click gives away one more piece of your soul to the Internet.