Another scary corporate espionage advance

You know Alexa, right?

It’s the synthesized artificial intelligence speech program that operates through that black cylindrical speaker Amazon dubbed the Echo.

Here’s how Amazon describes the system:

Alexa, the voice service that powers Echo, provides capabilities, or skills, that enable customers to interact with devices in a more intuitive way using voice. Examples of these skills include the ability to play music, answer general questions, set an alarm or timer and more. Alexa is built in the cloud, so it is always getting smarter. The more customers use Alexa, the more she adapts to speech patterns, vocabulary, and personal preferences.

Amazon, it seems, is taking their tech to a whole new level, and while at first glance the following story might seem innocuous, we have some reservations..

From MIT Technology Review:

It can be incredibly frustrating when a virtual assistant repeatedly misunderstands what you’re saying. Soon, though, some of them might at least be able to hear the irritation in your voice, and offer an apology.

Amazon is working on significant updates to Alexa, the virtual helper that lives inside the company’s voice-controlled home appliance, called Amazon Echo. These will include better language skills and perhaps the ability to recognize the emotional tenor of your voice.

A source familiar with the Echo project says Amazon’s researchers are looking at ways to stay ahead of the competition, primarily through a better understanding of a user’s intent. Researchers are exploring new natural-language processing techniques, but also ways to sense the emotion in a person’s voice. “How human affect is recognized and then reflected by [Alexa’s] voice will be a key area of [Amazon’s] R&D,” the source says.

So why are we concerned about this latest move?

Consider that it’s not just our mood that is reflected in our voices.

Voice can also serves as a diagnostic instrument for a variety of illnesses, including Parkinson’s, several disorders of the thyroid, rhinitis, depression, and bipolar disorder.

In other words, your voice, captured by Amazon, could be exploited to reveal sensitive personal medical and other information.

Amazon is a corporation, and as such was created to maximize investor profit and not to protect the most sensitive personal information about its customers, information that could have cash value to, say, companies marketing prescription drugs, patent medicines, and other notional treatments.

And if Amazon doesn’t do it, you can be certain some other corporation will. . .

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