Who Are You, Alexa?

by Amitabh Joshi 1 year ago Views 3021

It sits like an unassuming small cylindrical device in your drawing room, but Amazon’s Echo's Alexa may know you better than you know yourself.

Believe it or not, you'll end up getting phenomenally more than expected by looking into The ‘Anatomy of an AI System’ project which investigated Amazon Echo devices and has just won the 2019 Beasley Design of the Year Award’ at London’s Design Museum.  It reveals the painstaking effort of human and material resources which go into the soft voice of Alexa and ‘her brain’.

According to the Chairman of the judges on the design award panel, Paul Thompson, “AI is such a prevailing feature of the future of technology it seemed the perfect moment to analyse its impact, which this project does".

The digital investigation, created by Kate Crawford and Vladan Joler, presents the Amazon Echo as an anatomical map of human labor, data and planetary resources.

“But in this fleeting moment of interaction, a vast matrix of capacities is invoked: interlaced chains of resource extraction, human labor and algorithmic processing across networks of mining, logistics, distribution, prediction and optimization. The scale of this system is almost beyond human imagining”, the project states.

Further, it says: “Amazon Echo, the user has purchased a consumer device for which they receive a set of convenient affordances. But they are also a resource, as their voice commands are collected, analyzed and retained for the purposes of building an ever-larger corpus of human voices and instructions. And they provide labor, as they continually perform the valuable service of contributing feedback mechanisms regarding the accuracy, usefulness, and overall quality of Alexa’s replies. They are, in essence, helping to train the neural networks within Amazon’s infrastructural stack”.

Amazon’s admission earlier this year that it pays people to listen in to certain conversations of users through Alexa sent ripples through the growing community which has warned about the scope of Artificial Intelligence. What Alexa may be listening to at times could be the most intimate of conversations in our homes, because some users have reportedly discovered that Alexa was recording without a prompt.

A report in UK’s ‘The Sun’ revealed in August that Amazon staff can listen to Alexa recordings of British couples rowing, discussing private family matters — and having sex.


“The stack that is required to interact with an Amazon Echo goes well beyond the multi-layered ‘technical stack’ of data modelling, hardware, servers and networks. The full stack reaches much further into capital, labor and nature, and demands an enormous amount of each. The true costs of these systems – social, environmental, economic, and political – remain hidden and may stay that way for some time”, stated Kate Crawford and Vladan Joler in their ground-breaking project

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