Amazon’s New Wake-Word Patent Application Raises Privacy Concerns

A recent patent application filed by Amazon has raised eyebrows and reignited debate about consumer privacy in relation to artificial intelligence (“AI”) assistants.  One of Amazon’s latest patent applications covers a method for Amazon’s AI-assistant, “Alexa,” to start recording before the trigger or use of the device’s wake word.  

What Are Wake Words for AI’s?

For those unfamiliar with AI-assistants, a “wake word” is the word that a user says to activate the AI-assistant.  Typically, by default, AI-assistants are named by their respective companies and respond to their “names.”  For example, iPhone users may be familiar with “Siri,” Microsoft users with “Cortana,” and Amazon users with “Alexa.”  

Long before the technology was available, however, science fiction fans may have become familiar with wake words if they watched “Star Trek: The Next Generation” where Captain Jean-Luc Picard would use the wake word, “Computer” when he ordered his trademark “Earl Grey Tea, hot.”

Thus, the phrase “wake word” came about because the use of that particular word would “wake” the device from idle and tell it to begin “listening” to the user.  

What’s New in Amazon’s Wake Word Patent Application? 

With Amazon’s recent patent application, however, technology would allow users to use the “wake word” later in a sentence command.  For instance, instead of saying “Alexa, play music,” the user would now be able to say, “Play music, Alexa.”  While Amazon says this innovation is designed to allow users to “speak” to their AI-assistants more naturally, this new method also means that AI-assistants would potentially be recording much more of a user’s speech in order to listen for the wake word instead of the current method that only begins recording after the utterance of the wake word.

As privacy experts are already concerned with Amazon’s current practice of recording user’s speech and sending it back to Amazon servers without the option to “opt-out” or delete such recordings, the technology disclosed in this new patent application would give Amazon’s Alexa the ability and opportunity to record more user data and speech.  While Amazon has always argued that their recordings are used to better tune Alexa in relation to human speech, this new technology would arguably give Amazon even more reason to record lengthier portions of a consumer’s speech, even before addressing the AI-assistant with the wake word.

Technology Advantage or Privacy Flag?

Amazon has said that the patent application is merely exploratory for now and that they have no current plans to implement such a method involving the way a wake word currently works.  However, privacy experts warn that if Amazon were to use the method described in the patent application, users should expect AI-assistants to record and store user’s speech for a duration of anywhere between ten to thirty seconds, before a wake word it even uttered.  And, as this would mean that AI-assistants are never truly idle anymore, such innovation may prove troubling to consumers with privacy apprehensions.  

Consumers, privacy advocates, and intellectual property attorneys should keep informed of technology advances and the potential for privacy security and issues surrounding the manner in which new technology is used.

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