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Amazon’s plan for Alexa (technologyreview.com)
133 points by rchaudhary 25 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 122 comments



It still baffles me that these things have taken off. I suspect that the people buying them are purchasing the spectacle of having a virtual assistant rather than any sort of useful functionality.

The last time I interacted with one was at a friend's place. We were talking over coffee and somehow Brad Pitt's age came up. Neither of us knew how old he was. My friend paused, and then yelled out across the room "OK Google, how old is Brad Pitt?" The answer came back almost immediately. "103 years old".


So I, like many on this site, also have privacy concerns about these assistants [1], but I have never seen it [2] give obviously incorrect answers such as your anecdote. Obviously Google Knowledge Graph occasionally gives blatantly wrong answers, so maybe you just caught it on one of those days.

[1] In spite of my concerns, somewhat hypocritically, I have a mini in my bathroom which I received as a gift. I find it quite useful for listening to podcasts/music/audiobooks and switching between them purely by voice.

[2] From both personal usage, and usage at my friends' places, I find Google Homes as accurate as standard Google search, which is to say, very accurate the vast majority of the time.


I get an answer "He is 55 years old" and usually don't have problems with questions. For me a bigger problem is that I don't know the commands so I still haven't been able to request directions home in Maps. To be honest, biggest reason why I'm getting google home mini is to be able to connect my bluetooth speakers to the tv when playing hbo on chromecast

Edit: this made me invest time into figuring out the exact command to navigate so thanks :)


This is the NBU market - Next Billion Users.

India is the world's fastest growing consumer of voice traffic. At this point 30% of all google searches in India are voice and growing.

The fact that we have over 20 mainstream languages contributes to this. a lot of people now write Indian vernacular in Latin script which is highly unstandardised in spelling.

Voice is far far superior.


Voice is potentially superior only for a set of unambiguous questions - e.g. the temperature outside and that is assuming that the recognition part works.


Voice is superior when your language isn't Latin-based.

Billions of Chinese use voice as a main input for phones.


most people are not using for "knowledge base" kind of questions. they are using it for typical google search usecases where the results are often returned in text ...or more preferably video.

in fact there is a cool Alexa-for-the-poor that works on phone calls in India (through a toll free number) powered by Google Assistant : https://www.indiatoday.in/technology/news/story/google-assis...

Voice is the most powerful UX that people in countries like India are using.


That's just utterly wrong.

I have Alexa's and one Google home at home.

We now have cheap and good enough multiroom audio, voice controlled. It's used daily

We use very regular the weather forecast and timer and control our lights with it as well.

The future is here but it will probably go more in direction of offline assistance.

The integration in Philips hue, with more av receiver etc. Will just become even better.


I was surprised too. But then somebody gifted an Echo Show 5 to my parents and they have become an ardent users of it - great sound quality, no need to take out an app and fiddle with it to listen to music and manage BT connection with a speaker, just tell it what to play and it will do that.

What is amazing is how Amazon made an ecosystem around it to hook people to it - my parents were given a free years worth of amazon prime along with their broadband connection but they did not use it much. Then somebody gifted them a firestick and suddenly the prime subscription made sense because of prime videos. Now, they have an echo show 5 which is justifying the prime subscription even more because of prime music.


They don't know enough to be scared. Or they do and the temporary convenience appears to be worth sacrificing the long term freedom. As someone that has had many addictions, I can relate :-)


I know the risks. I just accept the risk-convenience tradeoff. I know plenty of people who work in infosec but have an Alexa (including myself).


Yes, I know infosec people that use gmail and linjedin too. Knowing isn't caring.


True. For a lot of these things, my threat model is very different from the average HN user's. I don't care in the same ways.

I personally fear privacy-related issues stemming from random people I may encounter online far more than I fear privacy-related issues related to NSA dragnet snooping or Google and Amazon monopolies. I have issues with them, and I'm aware of the risks, but in general I don't care much in a personal sense. I do care in a larger societal sense (these are all slippery slopes that are harmful to society), and I care about other people caring and believe their privacy wishes should be respected, but that doesn't change my personal behavior.


I got a free Google home mini from Spotify. It's fairly convenient for music and weather checking when I don't want to grab my phone. And it's great for when I don't remember where I _put_ my phone.


Haha :)

Indeed!


Benjamin Button


> If you’re one of the eight or nine people on the planet who has never interacted with Alexa, you’re both missing out and not really missing out.

I must be officially old, because I see no reason to give voice commands to things. If I did I'd just attach a microphone to the server I run at home and connect it to things.


I still don't find voice activation to be very good in the cases I've used it. The problem of transcribing what you're saying seems to be solved pretty well, but (at least in the applications I've used it in - which is just navigation via google maps on my phone) there still seems to be an inherent problem of discoverability.

It took me a fair bit of trial and error to work out the exact magic words to say to get google maps to launch navigation to a given address by car without requiring me to use the touch screen at all.

My natural inclination was to say "Hey Google, give me directions to 123 fake street" but this would bring up a route (or if you're especially unlucky a list of different places for you to choose from) but require you to press a "start" button with your finger, and often also require you to switch the navigation type from bus/walk/cycle to car manually too.

"Give me directions to 123 fake street by car" would skip the navigation type selection, but still require you to manually press a "start" button (various variations of "ok google, begin" or "ok google, start" etc didn't seem to do anything")

After a long period (months) of having to press a tiny button manually while driving to start navigation I finally discovered that if you say "Navigate to" rather than "Give me directions to" it would skip past the start button screen and jump straight to giving you directions.

So now it works great, but I hope I don't have to go through tedious trial and error with everything voice activated to work out the exact phrasing it wants.


I had to look up the voice command to cancel the current directions without touching the phone. It's "exit navigation," which is very similar to the command you found to start them.

All of these commands printed out on a list somewhere would probably be consistent, and make sense. But you don't get to see that list. Google and others want to present these systems as magical AI helpers that you just converse with, as if they had any more intelligence than a touch tone menu system circa 1990.

Knowing how these things work, it just strikes me as hubris. The UX isn't good because they can't admit that the whole system isn't as good as they say it is or want it to be, and this makes them opaque and frustrating to interact with.


I think that's because we're in the very early stages of a transitional period. The end goal is something like the Star Trek computer, free-form natural language queries ending in desired actions. I think this approach of filing off all the rough edges (namely, handling every possible unique way of phrasing a specific intent) is a dead end.

What we have nowadays is more like a voice-input command line, with all of the stiltedness and attention to detail when crafting your input that requires.


A voice input command line is exactly what we need.

Unfortunately people want to pretend that natural language parsing can be solved, which, at least, for English is impossible: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Time_flies_like_an_arrow;_frui...


The sentence you highlighted struck me as simultaneously remarkably vacuous as well as easily falsified.


This is a bit apples to oranges. I wouldn't want to start dictating this comment to my computer in the middle of the office, for many reasons, one being that typing is the better input choice for short-form text, as it is for server/console commands. But voice input is exactly what I want when I'm tugging on pants wondering if I need a jacket for today while I'm running late.


Regardless of how you feel about these devices, that line from the article is so preposterous. How many people in the world lack access to toilets or drink able water? How many folks survive on next to nothing? The author seems to think the US or maybe the more developed world is 99.9999999% of the population. If anything, it just highlights the fear mongering exaggeration. Sad.


It's not meant to be a literal statement. It's hyperbole to make a point about how ubiquitous it's become.


There is always context and interpretation and what you think that the Autor ist missing is actually you who missed it.


The only situations I find voice commands easier/faster than just physically interacting with a device are when I can't use my hands. So in the car, and I guess while cooking or in the shower - although I've only bothered with it for navigation while driving.


Yes, the kitchen and the car are the places I have found Alexa and Siri (respectively) useful. Amazon had the Echo Dot on offer for £9 GBP last week, and I’ve been surprised how much more often Alexa does the right thing than Siri does (YMMV).


There's a particularly good short story dealing with AI personal assistants shaping people's lives called The Perfect Match by Ken Liu (who once worked as a software engineer at Microsoft!) It's in an anthology of his short stories called The Paper Menagerie. Check it out, they're all pretty great - he's also the guy who translated most of the Three Body trilogy into english.


The question I always have is, who asked for all of this?

Do AI assistants actually make anyone's life easier? Serious question. I understand the novelty of shouting at your lightbulbs to turn them on and off, but it feels like that remains the epitome of the life-improvement that these systems can provide. I've never gotten a good recommendation from software outside of Pandora, which last I checked doesn't even use AI. I've never found a real use for Siri or Google Assistant. I briefly considered getting some Phillips Hues to go with an Alexa that I got for free, before stuffing the latter in a closet.

Please, for real, weigh in if voice assistants/AI suggestions have meaningfully improved your life. I'm genuinely curious.


Google Assistant is amazing and I use it constantly. Any task that's could be a single voice request, or a single question/answer, is better with voice than pulling out my phone IMO. Examples:

Playing music, getting directions, and sending texts while driving the car.

Controlling music in my house. Its a lot faster to just ask for something than fiddling with my phone. The kids use it for this too (they also do: "Ok google, tell me a story").

Setting timers in the kitchen while I'm cooking. We have some physical timers but inevitably they're hidden somewhere and/or my hands are dirty when I need them.

Asking random questions: "Ok google, what city has the longest name?", "how many cups is 9 tablespoons?" etc. It can answer a shocking fraction of the questions I throw at it.


I like being able to set an alarm without getting out of bed, and I'm extremely nearsighted, so I like being able to check the time and temperature before I find my glasses. Sometimes, if I can't sleep late at night, it is nice to put on some music or sounds w/o getting up.

It is handy when cooking, you can set named timers, ask for conversions with your hands full.

It is also fun at parties, guests can play whatever songs they want (there is a discount because I have the Amazon music just on that one device).

I listen to the radio on it, and I also get my news from it (I have it programmed to play the NPR news update and then the Fox News update. They usually cover the same stuff, but it is interesting to see how they emphasize different things.)

Alexa seems smarter than Siri or the "hey google" character if you have random questions and don't want to get out your phone or you already have too many tabs open.

I've played around with some of the skills, but really only use the timers, alarms, news, weather, music, streaming radio, and sometimes ask it questions.


Yeah. It just seems like most of those things could be done with ever-so-slightly more effort without this technology.

Most new consumer technologies that end up in every home fundamentally change people's lives. I just don't see that happening here.

We talk about these companies destroying privacy, gaining power on the scale of nation-states, etc. And we put up with them on some things, because smartphones and social media are really useful and can be really important to living modern life. But I just don't get it with the assistants (and really, Amazon shopping too). We're giving up so much as a society for such a tiny modicum of extra convenience.


I really like it, and I'm not convinced I'm giving up that much -- and I don't think there are negative externalities with my use of the device (how am I hurting anyone else?).

At the end of the day its just a fancy clock radio with okay sound that can play anything I want to hear without me getting up. But the "assistant" part of it seems like it is smarter than Siri or hey google.


It's a user interface shift.

A smartphone is an complex always on device with its own internet connection, microphone, GPS and camera.

We are not trading low risk UI with high risk UI. We switch or extend it to nodevice/voice control.

And I personally find it very impressive and subtile.

It just makes sense to use it in your kitchen, bedroom or on the Couch.

It is the same with Philips hue. Do I need it? No. Is it worth to me? Every penny. Why? Because it's a completely new level. Now you can combine lamps which had not one switch like your ceiling lights with a standlamp in the corner and you put your ligjtswitches where you actually are using them.

That was never possible before.and it's great for creating lightsettings. I'm using different lightsettings constantly.

For example our light is much less bright when I go to the toilet at night and it is motion detection based which I really love for our floor.


You're talking about IoT in general; I was specifically talking about voice assistants


I was talking about voice assistant in it's current context.


> meaningfully improved your life

You'll need to define that if you want a proper response. I suspect you don't really want a proper response and are just looking for a way to shit on people who have bought these devices.

Btw like much gadgets these things are for convenience so an example is when cooking and your hands are covered in food instead of setting a timer with your hands you can do it with your voice. Of course you can always just look at a clock and do it in your head manually. Is this a "meaningful" improvement in my life ... That's up for debated. I'd say the same thing though about mobile phones.


Siri is really useful for when I'm in the bath and asking for what time it is.


I don’t think the technology is there yet, but at least the goal is for AI assistants to make lives easier. Maybe not in 2020, but perhaps 2030?


I can understand the Star Trek dream of truly intelligent assistants, but we've been at it for nearly ten years and it hardly feels like the needle has moved. Despite the enormous advances in machine learning as a field over the past few years, AI assistants have mostly just gotten better speech-to-text and text-to-speech, and more developer support. I wouldn't expect a Star Trek "Computer" within the next 50 years at least.

The alternate (much more banal) explanation for the current prevalence is 1) a cynical data-grab on the part of companies, and 2) the devices are cheap and novel for consumers. In other words, it's not that they're creating such great value, but that companies have learned to embed their data-vacuums in what amount to toys.


That prediction really assumes the technology stops progressing at its current rate, which may or may not happen (are we going to hit a wall soon?).

I don’t subscribe to the just a data grab theory, that is incredibly cynical. Also, even a simple device is useful if it’s cheap enough (“Alexa play space unicorn” is really useful for us parents).


Compared to 1966's Eliza we've made good progress: speech to text and text to speech provide a better interface and work good enough (accents are still a big problem though), we can map between many equivalent commands automatically instead of requiring someone to account for all variants manually, and tools like Google's knowledge graph allow answering questions about most simple facts.

Still, that's about all of our progress in 50 years (in production ready, deployed systems). Estimating that we need another fifty years seems fair.


My point is that none of those improvements bring us meaningfully closer to general intelligence. It's all surface-level stuff. Important surface-level stuff, but nevertheless. I don't see much progress in the actual hard part of creating a truly helpful AI assistant.


That progress has mostly come in the last 10 years, not 50. Before that we were just doing it wrong.


That doesn't mean we won't do it wrong for the next 30 years, or that we are doing it right right now.

We have to account for accelerating progress, but I'm not sure that's enough to bring us much closer than 50 years away


Sure, we could hit another wall, deep learning could be a false peak, etc. On the other hand, it could just keep going. Tech companies make bets on this, and if they were conservative they wouldn’t be tech companies.


For me, the really big (and deal-breaking) difference between these "assistants" and Star Trek is that the Star Trek computer doesn't send recordings of you off to the Ferengi homeworld for analysis. We wanted a computer in our homes we can talk to. What we got is a wiretap, and a bunch of guys sitting around stroking their lobes as they gather intelligence on us.


It's not the hyperbole that I find a bit old and tiresome, it's the hubris and often utopian vision I come across from people in tech in statements like this. As though there are no possible downsides.

> Prasad’s ultimate vision is to make Alexa available and useful for everyone. Even in developing countries, he imagines cheaper versions that people can access on their smartphones. “To me we are on a journey of shifting the cognitive load on routine tasks,” he says. “I want Alexa to be a productivity enhancer … to be truly ubiquitous so that it works for everyone.”


Utopian visions are fine. This vision is fine.

My problem is that tech companies uttering those visions usually lie. Even in this case, there's set of business and technological decisions being made that go against the vision. As long as voice processing is done in the cloud vs. the device, as long as the device itself is tied to an account and a service (vs. just subscribing to services that provide actions which require those services), as long as it's done by amoral corporation with plenty of history of putting profit before humane behavior - Alexa will always come with privacy issues, will not be useful to everyone, and there will be business incentives to not make it a true productivity enhancer.


That sounds too positive. It isn’t doomsday enough for the culture here. An opt-in device you need to purchase, set up, and interact with: the horrors!


"Alexa", whoever TF that is today, can hear and see your neighbors.


And your guests, who did NOT opt in.


The AI fear mongering is getting old. If you don't want an Alexa or Google Home, then don't buy one. Personally, I ask Google questions all day long and miss it when I don't have it around. It allows me to learn lots of little things all of the time, and I would be happy to have contextual suggestions as long as it was truly trying to be helpful rather than only sell shit.


Do you turn off your Alexa when visitors come over?

Should I ask if I visit, and how would you respond?


This is silly. Do you also worry about everyone's phone? It is not uncommon to see folks accidently activate Siri. Or Google. Usually to laughs. If someone is wanting to be nefarious... I'd be more worried about the people you have over to your house, than the people's houses you go to.


I do worry about people's phones.


If I had visitors insist that I put my cell phone in the refrigerator when they come by, I'd politely decline the visit instead.

I treat the Echo the same way. I don't mind if friends have their own preferences when it comes to "smart" things, but I won't indulge their paranoia in my house.

These things have been out for years now, and I've yet to see any evidence that they're always listening or exfiltrating your conversations to HQ. Just vague anecdotes about people seeing ads after they discussed some product, or how their Alexa made a VoIP call by mistake (which, going back to the cell phone analogy, is the same as a butt-dial.)

If you got some particularly sensitive information to talk about, then let's just make sure she's muted for that conversation. I'll do that while you lock your phone to prevent the butt-dial.


Uhh ...

https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/gadgets-and-tech/ne...

https://www.forbes.com/sites/kateoflahertyuk/2019/04/12/amaz...

https://www.washingtonpost.com/gdpr-consent/?destination=%2f...

That said I agree its your home, and me as a potential visitor, will not expect you to disable/enable any devices on my account


there is a button on top of mine that makes it turn "red" and disables it waking up on the word, I would offer to hit that button, and if you did't trust that I guess we could unplug it. It is not hard to re-setup if it looses it's memory.


If it concerns you that much, maybe you should ask. If you don’t want to visit someone who has one of these devices, that’s entirely up to you. I personally have Google Home in my home. Haven’t had any problems with anything but the fear mongering.


“Don’t buy one” may soon cease to be an option, just like smart TVs.

Heck you get it even if you don’t buy it. My headphones were software updated with Google Assistant, plus there was the infamous Nest smoke alarm.


A lot of cable/satellite boxes have Google and Amazon's assistants built in.

And real estate developers have been putting up apartment buildings for at least three years with Alexa built in to the apartments. It's only a matter of time before these "features" are in everyone's homes whether they want them or not.


I'm with ya, as long market forces are still at work I'll vote with my $'s every chance I get.

https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=21302825


> From a consumer point-of-view, it’s hard to imagine Alexa becoming so useful that we’d come running when it summons us. But Alexa‘s primary mission will always be to gather data. Simply put: Amazon, Microsoft, and Google are all trillion dollar companies because data is the most valuable resource in the world, and Alexa is among the world’s greatest data collectors.

I think the article misses the point here. Alexa is not supposed to summon you anywhere, it's supposed to be omnipresent like the "computer" in Star Trek. Being more proactive would just be similar to receiving smartphone push notifications. Maybe the real worry is about getting too many of those notifications from Alexa, which is obviously something Amazon needs to be careful with.

I also couldn't find any mention of Alexa being "among the world's greatest data collectors" in the referred infographic. I don't doubt that it collects a lot of data in terms of terabytes since it's all audio, but is there really so much information content in those commands people occasionally utter to it?


> but is there really so much information content in those commands people occasionally utter to it?

You forget that those devices are always on, always listening.


Yeah, they're half-on listening for the wakeword, but they don't send the audio anywhere until you utter it.


Minor but important correction - until it thinks you utter it.

If it misheard you it can do bad things: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2018/may/24/amazon-al...


This is not only something you largely have to trust Amazon's word on but a limitation that can be removed at any time via OTA update.


I don't think that's entirely true. People have analyzed the network traffic and found it to match the wakewords. The hardware and software architecture has also been analyzed and my understanding is that the wakeword functionality is implemented by secondary low-power hardware, which turns on the main system only after hearing the wakeword. Of course, anything is possible in theory and I wouldn't be surprised to see some targeted attacks happening occasionally, but that's pretty different from massive always-on 24/7 audio collection from all consumers.

Some related links: https://www.iot-tests.org/2017/06/careless-whisper-does-amaz... https://arxiv.org/abs/1707.08696


Do you think that people care about the difference between only detecting wakewords and actual continual listening? My understanding from people I’ve talked to with smart speakers in their homes is that they’ve accepted that it’s listening all the time.


I'm sure people have different feelings about it. My personal view is that you can listen to anyone using the microphones in their computers and smartphones anyway (with a targeted attack) and nobody is unhackable.

At the same time I think people have become more privacy-aware in general and started to demand less bulk data collection. So they might accept certain risks of getting hacked but not necessarily submit to terms of service that allow bulk collection.


That’s such a short sighted cop out to a legitimate threat.

When you make the argument that “no one said the keyword so it isn’t uploading!”, you aren’t considering that it’s listening for voices, your voice, your SO’s voice, how many unique voices, what time they are talking, what temperature it is, if there is a TV or music on, what station it’s on via pattern recognition, all manner of meta data that DOES NOT require a keyword or a large outgoing data stream.

It could store meta data for days and dump it with a single MQTT packet which it’s sending all the time, and they’re all encrypted.

We flat out have no idea what these things are doing on the data collection end that doesn’t have to do with someone saying “Alexa” first.


I think you're right, I was only thinking about raw audio being uploaded to the cloud. In the future, there might be more and more local machine learning happening on the devices and the extracted metadata being uploaded unnoticed.

On the other hand, I still think people can analyze the hardware and software running on the devices. If there are "black boxes" doing something unknown, we should be worried, particularly if they are always powered on and have the processing capability to analyze audio content.

Still, the original claim in the article was that there is a lot of this metadata being uploaded right now. I don't think anybody has verified that claim, even if it could be true.


Well, the Ferengi in Star Trek don't seem to be using voice interfaces to their computers, and maybe perhaps there's a (in-universe) reason for that. Our civilization is much more like the Ferengi than anything else in Star Trek, so I'm not all too happy about how voice interfaces are turning out.


Can someone explain to me how we go from assistant that maybe tells me news in the morning and lets me know if the traffic is bad on my commute to omnipresence?

I mean sure Alexa skills are just Amazon letting other people figure out how to design the interface for interacting with Alexa until they lock that down. It also allows for wonderful ads for local news letting you know they have programmed an Alexa skill.

This is article is just description that as with every other large digital assistant team, it is much easier for them to learn how to design the user experience of the digital assistant by seeing what people do with it rather than designing literally anything.

I also tend to think that it is now becoming clear that the hard part of making a digital assistant is designed the user interface and interactions and not the AI part of it, not to discount the vast amount of work done by all of these companies.


> Can someone explain to me how we go from assistant that maybe tells me news in the morning and lets me know if the traffic is bad on my commute to omnipresence?

I've often thought about what I would like a virtual assistant to do for me, and it's generally along the lines of "alert me if there's something I should know about", similar to how a real, live assistant might go about it. I don't want to know the weather parameters, only if they changed significantly from yesterday. And delivered at the correct moment for me to do something about it, not too early, not too late. Same for a commute, but for that, the assistant would have to know how I commute normally, what my schedule is for today, when I'm planning to leave. All of this would be a lot more accurate with omnipresence, as scary as that sounds. The value add is great enough that in the long run, implementation is almost guaranteed.


Going from passive to active interaction feels like the logical evolution of the technology. If Alexa can simply sense if someone is in a room and asks if they would like something to eat, that will dramatically change the food delivery industry. The question is: will people find it invasive or upsetting? My intuition says yes, but the existing popularity of the devices says no.


I’ve been reading “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism” recently, and this is totally the classic case for her argument. We’ve clearly reached the point where our utility to the technology providers has surpassed their utility to us. I have no idea why anyone would have one of those things in their home. It’s no longer a matter of the technology itself, but who is behind it and what they are doing with it. I don’t like the Bezos drives his warehouse workers like something out of a Dickens era factory horror show, but the notion that he’d like to turn me into a “consumption worker” is just too much to stomach.


I read that book a few months ago and agree 100%. I would also add that not only is the predictive technology a way to guide and shape your life using nudges, but it also is sort of required by the logic of capitalist society. These kinds of technologies are used to accelerate consumerism, which accelerates further both production, environmental degradation, degrades working conditions, and (most importantly) further concentrates wealth in the hands of the capitalists.

In capitalist society, if growth stalls, it leads to riots. The only way a capitalist society can present a face where some of the population feels like they are being taken care of is when the amount of wealth is increasing generally enough that the inequality isn't as sharply felt. Advertising, credit, and other behavioral nudges are accelerants of growth.

Of course, when things break down enough, Alexa will also be able to act as an arm of the state for gathering intelligence. I look forward with horror to the day when it is installed by default into housing.


They’re game changing convenience items. “Alexa, play <music description>” “Alexa, set a timer for 90 seconds.” “Alexa, what’s the weather?” “Alexa, play ‘price it right’”

I don’t expect I’ll order items via Alexa anytime soon, but “she” gets probably 50 interactions a day. I’m fine with the trade off.


Alexa, or as I say 'computer', really helps cook food with timers. I'm kind of fine with giving up privacy in exchange for useful tools.


> From a consumer point-of-view, it’s hard to imagine Alexa becoming so useful that we’d come running when it summons us. But Alexa‘s primary mission will always be to gather data. Simply put: Amazon, Microsoft, and Google are all trillion dollar companies because data is the most valuable resource in the world, and Alexa is among the world’s greatest data collectors.

I know this has nothing to do with the overall theme of the article, but this is misleading, Microsoft is the only company in that list with a market cap over 1 trillion. As of the time of writing it is ~1.1T. Apple, on the other hand, has a market share of ~1.16T, and they have made clear their stance (or lack thereof) in users' personal data. Just don't like the author's use of market caps to explain the power of "data" when their argument falls apart rather quickly.


In order for Amazon to accomplish the goal of Alexa becoming proactive, there’s one major puzzle piece that’s missing: an Amazon phone (unless by some miracle either Apple or Google gives Alexa tighter integration into their OS’s)

I predict Amazon will make another attempt at releasing a phone within the next two years


Alexa is banned from my house. No eavesdropping allowed.


No smartphones either then? Even when guests come over?


I would highly value a phone that had a physical kill switch for mic, camera, and sensors. The best would be a multi level level kill switch: one for that, another step to kill mobile, another to kill all networking. Not perfect, but better than nothing.


They go in a little sound isolated Faraday cage.

If you want to check your phone, you can stand up and take the 60 seconds to do it.


Url changed from https://thenextweb.com/artificial-intelligence/2019/11/08/am..., which points to this.


I’m one of the 8 people on the planet. Simply because Alexa (and Siri) have real trouble understanding my accent. I don’t fear something I’m at liberty not using and that’s barely intelligent enough to make sense of what I say.


The other day Alexa asked if I wanted it to learn my voice, so it could understand me better.


Amazon already invests a lot in this space, that's how you increase profit. You have to predict who's buying what and where and ship bulk depending on tendencies. This is just taking it to the personal level.


For many years, I've claimed to some of my friends that the goal of Amazon is to get to the point where they can order things for us before we even know that we want them. So Amazon wouldn't even require a confirmation on our part. We'll just come home to the packages that Amazon has decided that we need or want.

This situation raises a whole host of issues, and I'm not claiming it'd be a good thing. It just seems to me like the obvious endgame for Amazon, and I think it perfectly fits the modern ethos of reducing friction and pursuing convenience at all costs, including losing our own agency.


Amazon patented this idea years ago

https://techcrunch.com/2014/01/18/amazon-pre-ships/


Ha! Of course they did. Thanks for the link.


Think about the logistics savings by having stuff be auto-ordered before you need it.


TLDR; Alexa will be proactive rather than just reactive but doesn't give any realistic examples of what that will look like.


> We know how dangerous it is to let bad actors run amok with AI and our data – if you need a refresher, recall the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

Maybe I'm missing something, but what does the Cambridge Analytica scandal have to do with AI?

> Rohit Prasad, the scientist in charge of Alexa‘s development, recently gave MIT Technology Review’s Karen Hao one of the most terrifying interviews in modern journalism

Is the hyperbole really necessary?

> Rohit Prasad, Alexa’s head scientist, has now revealed further details about where Alexa is headed next. The crux of the plan is for the voice assistant to move from passive to proactive interactions.

So Alexa will make suggestions or remind you that you need to order toilet paper. Much like Google's Android greets me with the time it would take me to get to work every morning without any prompt.

Its really sad that the state of tech reporting is full of this hyperbole and fear mongering. You can have a real discussion about the dangerous of technology and erosion of privacy, but this isn't it.


>Maybe I'm missing something, but what does the Cambridge Analytica scandal have to do with AI?

I also missed all the bad things that happened because of Cambridge Analytica. Even if we take their extremely dubious claims about their effectiveness at face value them running amok resulted in politicians being better able to target ads. That's not exactly the stuff of nightmares.


Did you watch the Channel 4 report[0]? The CEO of CA clandestinely advertised far more than just ads for the reporter posing as a potential client. They are in the business of winning elections, through whatever means necessary. He openly talked about things like targeting and entrapping political opponents with blackmail via "honeypots". His deputies made some really interesting statements during that report as well. I highly recommend watching the report, it's a fascinating watch.

Based on what he was caught saying on camera, in addition to his deputies, and the reporting around their political campaigns in Africa using propaganda that claimed AIDS would come back if so-and-so were elected, it's not a stretch to imagine those people doing everything the can, legally and illegally, to sway an election.

0: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mpbeOCKZFfQ


But this has always happened in politics. CA just optimized it


-people always travelled, automobile just optimized it -people always produced goods, factories just optimized it -people always used weapons, nuclear energy just optimized them

... never underestimate the impact of “just optimizing” something


That footage certainly doesn't make them look good, but the real question is how much of that is sales-pitch, marketing bs, and how much of it is really effective. Every data upstart in the world has the best data, can target audiences with precision, get your brand unprecedented engagement, and use their magical ML algorithms to do magical things - according to their marketing and sales teams. Blah, blah, blah. Meanwhile if you could peek into the actual data engineering, their data is a giant mess, totally stale, and barely better than useless (which to be fair, is all it takes to make money in the data space right now). But it terms of actual influence... well... always be skeptical.


> The real question is how much of that is sales-pitch, marketing bs, and how much of it is really effective.

Sure, they may not be able to deliver super effective results today, few startups in their early days do.

What they’ve identified, though, is that there is a vast market of incredible wealth willing to pay for services like this. CA may have shut down, but Nix turned around and founded another company that does the exact same thing[0].

Keep in mind that these guys also have access to incredible investment money, they don’t have to go out and raise seed rounds, series rounds, etc. These companies are being built in secret, and it’s incredibly short-sighted to write them off for their capabilities today, because if they succeed tomorrow, we’re in really big trouble.

0: https://www.newsweek.com/what-emerdata-scl-group-executives-...


See also "The Great Hack" (2019) via Netflix.


I work in digital for the Democratic Party. You are correct. If you look at my comment history you’ll see me affirming this.


Well, it sort of is my nightmare. I disagree with hyperbole in general, but politicians being able to easily manipulate truth across vast swathes of society is my idea of a nightmare (a pretty scary one at that).


I am a professional FB advertiser and I would be shocked if the CA data was valuable in any way. Big lists of poorly targeted and categorized users are going to lose 99/100 against FB lookalike audiences.


> I would be shocked if the CA data was valuable in any way.

Indeed. There are plenty of companies that would pay a LOT of money to use that data in any meaningful way. It doesn't happen, but people will convince themselves it's important data, enabling a host of dying properties to fool a handful of market actors into getting a profitable exit. The amount of user data leveraged from most acquisitions is basically 0, excepting a few mailings. Conversely, consumer reach (active users) matters a great deal.


plus CA was an aggregate human misbehavior, people pressing "give away my friends data" en masse. It was millions of people being careless with each others data.


> So Alexa will make suggestions or remind you that you need to order toilet paper.

Using a microphone, even with an offline ML model, to do things like play music at the right times and (almost certainly) show you ads or ask if you want to buy Amazon product is pretty off-putting. Google Maps and Siri Suggestions uses your phone's behavioral data and location history to figure out when you usually leave for work, but if you said "i need to get to work an hour earlier tomorrow" to someone, it would be weird if your phone or Alexa instantly said "do you want me to remind you to leave earlier?" I don't think it's as off-putting as the article makes it out to be, but it's still pretty creepy; we're almost certainly going to have boomer facebook groups boycotting Alexa for "always listening".


Please don't post generational flamebait to HN. It starts generational flamewars on HN. Those are seriously lame and boring.

https://news.ycombinator.com/newsguidelines.html


Sorry, I was being more descriptive about which generation wouldn't look deep into what the technology does and would instead jump to conclusions, ie "amazon knows everything you're saying", but I still realize that wasn't appropriate.


So you think only boomers will find this sort of thing off putting or creepy?


Yeah, my experience seems to indicate boomers have no concept of digital privacy and it's largely only the younger and more technically literate that care.


No but they'd be the only people in a Facebook group complaining about it


Could you please stop posting unsubstantive comments and/or flamebait to HN? You've been doing it a lot, and we've already had to warn you a lot. I just posted https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=21502690, but there were several cases before that and plenty of other guidelines violations that I only just saw.


This boomer doesn't do Facebook (or WhatsApp, or Instagram for that matter).

Then again I'm not likely to by a "smart"-speaker anytime soon.


It might be hard to boycott AI assistants just like it's hard to boycott facebook. If assistant is powerful enough, people would be willing to onboard.


Nothing that’s actually quoted from the real source in that article is even 1% as scary or egregious as that clickbait garbage article makes it sound. I’m not a fan of corporate America or anything like that, but this garbage writing on HN and front page is sad.


Reminds me of Silicon Valley S06E02, where Gates of Galloo shows you ads based on what you're talking about. For instance, a Domino's ad pops up when it hears/overhears you talking about pizza. Now imagine Alexa doing that without a wake word; seems like a blessing and a curse -- more of a curse.


While the technocracy is busy trying to convince us that what matters is smart light bulbs and the prospect of living on Mars the world's ecosystem is on the point of collapse and a significant percentage of the worlds population have nowhere decent to live. Wake up, human race! Ask yourself, HN crowd, how many of the AI jobs you routinely see posted on here are doing anything significant? Alexa is just a toy.




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