What do you think of Amazon's Alexa and others similar?



I agree on most of your points and certainly hope you are right, but on the policing part you should also read this (will add to reading list): https://www.wired.com/story/age-of-social-credit/


@danimora – while my original post focused on how voice-activated computing had replaced certain screen-based computing and how this is beneficial, I don’t consider Alexa/Echo’s sole or even main purpose to be minimizing screen utilization. If minimizing screen utilization were the main goal, I agree, focusing on awareness/mindfulness and what matters most would be the better approach.

If all you want to do is use your smartphone less and you’re compelled to make a purchase in the service of this, the right one would probably be a dumbphone, not an Echo.

We bought our Echoes for their growing list of features and using screens less was just an added and welcome benefit.

I think the benefits of Echoes (if not necessarily the privacy issues) do fall in the category of “Humane Tech.” I don’t consider the Echo at all exploitative of a user’s attention. It lies dormant unless activated by the user and doesn’t vie for attention. As useful as it is, sometimes I forget about it and accomplish a task without using it (sometimes for days). I also think the bulk of the privacy concerns surrounding Echoes and similar are either hypothetical or involve third party actors (i.e. governments demanding access to data from Amazon that it may not even be able to collect).

I think it’s a big stretch to go from using an Echo to being publicly shamed on Twitter for whatever happened in the privacy of my own home. I agree if that were to happen, people would unplug them. Amazon and others have a very strong financial incentive to make sure that doesn’t happen.

Center For Humane Technology used to be called Time Well Spent. I like how the Echo has woven itself into how we spend our time as a family – time that is to some extent, more well spent. As Alexa Voice Services, Google Assistant, and others make their way into home appliances and other traditionally un-connected devices, voice-based technology will increasingly surround us. Sure, we can unplug it all or just not connect it to our networks, but the focus seems like it should be on privacy policies and EULAs to make sure we don’t have to.


In the article about the smart home (see some posts above), the authors say that your internet provider can have access to your information and it can sell it to companies or yes, governments.

Lucky for me that I live in Germany because the government is very protective on matters of privacy. Just today:

So I don’t think the concerns are hypothetical at all.

Again, as the article says, before your patterns of behavior reach Twitter, your dental insurance company bought the information from your internet provider and has decided that you should pay more for your insurance because you don’t brush 3 times a day, just 2 (here we are talking about “smart” devices in general and not only the Echo). Companies will police our behavior before the Twitter mob.

If the financial incentive for Amazon, as for Facebook, is other companies buying your information and not you as a consumer, what do they have to lose? Yes, of course, the more users the more companies will buy the information, so Amazon or Facebook or any other company that trades with data have to keep a balance between their number of users and what they give to their real clients, but still, so far companies have cared less for their users.

Maybe they will, maybe they won’t. Nothing is written in stone. I am sure many people around the world consider they spend good quality time with their family and they don’t have an Echo. I don’t think an Echo or any smart device is necessary to spend your time well. Good that it has worked for you though.


Hi @danimora – it seems like several issues have been conflated in kind of a “whack-a-mole” fashion (as one point is addressed another somewhat un-related one pops up).

I don’t think ISPs should be able to collect information and sell it to companies, including insurers, or governments. On the one hand, to the extent possible, I’ve opted out of everything I can and block trackers and use VPNs. On the other hand, I use an Echo for its benefits, which is why I answered your original question: “What do you think of Amazon’s Alexa and others similar?”

The author of the Gizmodo article imagined, "While not necessarily the most sensitive information, it made me imagine the next iteration of insurance incentives: Use a smart toothbrush and get dental insurance at a discount! " While this could happen in theory, it’s not, to my knowledge, actually happening (if you know differently, please let me know). If it were to become an option, so long as it was “opt-in” I wouldn’t necessarily consider it problematic.

To your point about my point on financial incentives, if no one uses a product or service, there will be no data to sell. Facebook recently reportedly lost 2.8 million US users. If people found out Amazon was selling data collected by Echoes, they would lose users as well.

I didn’t say having an Echo was a requirement for quality family time, only that we find our Echoes beneficial to spending time together as a family. They’re useful and fun.

To your point about maybe or maybe not regarding the proliferation of voice-based technology, just observing the floor of CES year-over-year for the past several, I can tell you this technology isn’t just coming, it’s already here (just not evenly distributed (to riff on William Gibson)).


Do you think Facebook lost user because it’s selling data.


No. Not in this instance. Although here is an example of a service that did, Unroll Me. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/24/technology/personal-data-firm-slice-unroll-me-backlash-uber.html

My point about Facebook is that the user loss occurred at all.


In my opinion, it adds some value like any other gadget would do and you get bored with it after using it for sometime. My coworkers have smart homes integrated with Alexa and Google. But I find it much easier and turn the lights on or off by hand rather than shouting out loud. It does seem to have some practical situations where you can put smart switches where you have most vulnerable areas like basement by the water sewer or pipe where you can automate opening or closing the valve, video cameras can be practical example to see areas in a big house where you have the view in your palm. But things like hello alexa whats the weather or play the music and then collecting so much behavior data that we exhibit creating an wave of AI which will eventually come back and bite us which I am not so thrilled about. Software solutions are suppose to help solve complex problems and not make us damn lazy in doing simple household chores or entertain ourselves so much to numb ourselves and go brain dead.


I think it’s normal that they lost users.
There is a lot of reasons. The younger Generations don’t want to be on the same network with their parents. And there will always going to be a opposition to majority. The more bigger you became the more people start hating you.


What about cell phone😉, it’s working similar to Alexa now. Your phone always with you, it have microphone and Camera.


I agree with you. I didn’t bring up Facebook in this conversation. But when it came up, I did note that they were losing some users (younger ones as you point out).


I think we’re supposed to be happy that’s Facebook losing users. The only problem that those user moving to another “Facebook”, who control another “Zuckerberg”.


I would be nice to have a light indicator on mobile phone, that is on whenever the camera is on, same for microphone, something hardware.
There used to be something like that in japan i believe, phone had to make a noise when taking a picture.


I agree! I also don’t love the privacy aspect but I’m actually really optimistic about voice assistants as an alternative to screens.


I am eternally grateful to be in Europe because of things like GDPR - I am originally from the US, and the vast difference in privacy laws is shocking to me. Of course, I am in the UK so we will see what happens with Brexit… eyeroll…


This is a great article I found through Abhay Johorey on LI… shows that we might get a lot of fake news spewed from Alexa’s speakers and others like her:


Pardon me, but coming from India and having lots of people around me, I think it’s high-tech madness to talk to a device. Notice how in all the ads about Alexa you have no human being to turn to… you only have a stupid device acting too smart. Tristan Harris has been going around educating people that they should turn off all notifications which are not initiated by a person. This Alexa thing is a robot. You want this thing to talk to? It’s a technological apology for a social problem which will ultimately devour the world, starting with the United States: the problem of loneliness.


Just don’t do it! Just another device to try to hook you and sell your personal information!!


Another disturbing event in British Parliament regarding Siri, when it accidentally interpreted the word “Syria” for its own call sign and answered the MP - Gavin Williamson, the Defense Secretary - who was giving a speech.

It was all fun and games in the (social) media, but this is just horrible. Imagine such a high profile politician, involved in defense issue, the military, carrying an “always-on” listening device with him, that sends its information to a commercial American tech giant.

There was at least some criticism and questions about this practice (quoting from Business Insider):

“Erm hate to ruin the gag about Williamson’s phone, but isn’t turning off Siri one of the most basic things that you do if you care about erm, cybersecurity,” the BBC’s political editor, Laura Kuenssberg, tweeted.


“Let’s pause this for a second to understand the implications. The British defense minister set his phone on always listening to use Siri,” the British tech entrepreneur Rodolfo Rosini wrote.


If even members of parliament are not aware of the most basic of privacy protection, then this says something on what we can expect from your average, normal person.


I work for Amazon on their Alexa team, so obviously may be biased, but there are a two things in favour of it that I wanted to add. This is also in no way an official statement, and purely reflects my personal views.

The first is simply that voice assistants help you not look at a screen. Screens are rife with notifications and hooks to keep you there. If I want to know the weather, I just ask without stopping my current task. I don’t run the risk of checking my email / social media every time I want information. I also think a push for humane technology can steer us to abandoning technology altogether. If voice interfaces can become very natural to use, I would love to see standard user interfaces like touch screens or keyboard/mouse become the backup mode and voice the primary.

The second is a personal heuristic when thinking about tech companies. The harder it is to understand their business plan, the less trusting I become. Amazon’s business plan is pretty obviously tied to shopping. I have never felt manipulated into using the product, which is probably because they are outside the “attention economy” with this business plan.

I understand there are some huge privacy concerns having a device in your home capable of listening to you though, so I appreciate a lot of the concerns mentioned here!


Hi @benrules2, thanks for sharing your experience working on Amazon’s Alexa’s team.

It would be wonderful if you could please make suggestions for change so that:

  • No information from Alexa should ever stored by Amazon – nothing should ever be saved except on the local device.
  • No “personalisation” except for settings saved on the users’ devices themselves.

I know that’s a lot to ask, but if you want to defeat Google why not differentiate yourselves by respecting users’ human rights? I can see that as a major selling point, especially as you mentioned that as Amazon’s business model is based on shopping rather than on advertising.

Also to be honest in my opinion Alexa, Siri and Google Home are more like children’s toys than anything else, though I wouldn’t want my children anywhere near these strange contraptions. From what I understand the information they provide is garbage in garbage out, and the “sources” of this information such as online reviews are basically fake data which is manipulable by markers. Trust me Amazon gives my own brother thousands of dollars of free products every year to write fake reviews!