Amazon Echo (copy) (copy) (copy)

Amazon keeps an audio recording of every voice command issued to Alexa via its Echo digital assistant. File/Provided/Amazon

Amazon’s patent application for an always-on feature for Alexa, its popular voice-activated personal assistant, has raised a lot of concern. “If you’re already freaked out by the privacy implications of smart speakers like Amazon’s Echo,” says Gizmodo, “we have some bad news.” A headline in ScienceAlert is even more direct: “Newly Released Amazon Patent Shows Just How Much Creepier Alexa Can Get.” You get the idea.

But the anxiety is much ado about nothing. An Alexa that’s always listening will likely prove more useful than an Alexa that isn’t; and, in any case, always-on devices are certainly our future.

As of January 2019, Amazon had sold more than 100 million devices that include Alexa. When you purchase an Alexa device, you are choosing to invite Amazon into your home to listen to you.

Even those who have no interest in obtaining an Alexa-linked device know how the thing works, if only from Amazon’s flood of television commercials. You say “Alexa, what’s today’s weather?” — and it tells you. Whenever Alexa hears its “wake word,” the software assumes that the user wants its attention. Thus Alexa “wakes,” listens and processes the words that follow as a command.

The difficulty arises because, in the words of the patent application, a wake word “may not always precede a spoken command, and may sometimes be included in the middle of a spoken command.” The application gives an example: “Play ‘Mother’s Little Helper’ by the Rolling Stones.” As currently configured, the system will respond if the user prefaces the request with “Alexa” (that is, “Alexa, play ‘Mother’s Little Helper’”) but not if the wake word comes at the end (that is, “Play ‘Mother’s Little Helper,’ Alexa”).

Put otherwise, Alexa as currently configured does not match the way people speak. The user must structure each command around a relatively formal grammar.

Here’s Amazon’s solution: Alexa already stores what it hears in a buffer. Under the new configuration, according to the application, once Alexa detects a wake word, “the device will go backwards through the audio in the buffer to determine the start of the utterance that includes the wake word.”

It all makes a great deal of sense. Why then the concern? It seems to me that there are two potential issues.

One is a worry about what happens to the information from the audio buffer. Alexa currently retains recordings for a period of time, helping it model the user’s needs and wants. This feature, which can be partially disabled, has already caused privacy problems. Courts have issued subpoenas for Alexa recordings. And as Bloomberg News has reported, human beings at Amazon already listen to much of what Alexa hears, in an effort to improve the algorithm. But no always-on feature was necessary for those recordings to survive.

The second concern might be that an Alexa which listens more closely, responding to natural language commands, will soon become an Alexa that fades into the background. The relative formality with which the device must be addressed serves as a reminder that we are addressing just that — a device.

We accept that our laptops and smart televisions are recording the choices we make and sending them we know not where.

The only reason we imagine that our spoken words are safe is that speech is an older, more instinctive technology.

But to the computers that now surround us, speech is just another form of data.

The various voice-commanded devices of today, whether in our homes, smartphones or cars, work just like keyboards or touchscreens. The only difference is that the human input is a voice. And the only way they can get that input is to listen for it.

So let’s calm down. Yes, it can be fun to imagine a future in which our homes are entirely connected and yet we’re able to keep private everything we want to keep private. But that ship sailed long before Amazon decided to seek a patent on a minor and welcome change to Alexa.

Stephen Carter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist.

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