By | August 5, 2019
Privacy Missteps Cast Cloud Over Digital Assistants

Apple has suspended its “grading” programme for Siri globally, following public outcry

Highlights
  • Apple admitted that it allows contractors to hear Siri recordings
  • The company quickly suspended the controversial training practise
  • It was put into effect for improving the in-house Siri AI assistant
Jump To

  • Unfounded fears?
  • Boiling the frog

A series of privacy missteps in recent months has raised fresh concerns over the future of voice-controlled digital assistants, a growing market seen by some as the next frontier in computing.

Recent incidents involving Google, Apple, and Amazon devices underscore that despite strong growth in the market for smart speakers and devices, more work is needed to reassure consumers that their data is protected when they use the technology.

Apple this week said it was suspending its “Siri grading” program, in which people listen to snippets of conversations to improve the voice recognition technology, after the British-based Guardian newspaper reported that the contractors were hearing confidential medical information, criminal dealings, and even sexual encounters.

“We are committed to delivering a great Siri experience while protecting user privacy,” Apple said in a statement, adding that it would allow consumers to opt into this feature in a future software update.

Google meanwhile said it would pause listening to and transcribing conversations in the European Union from its Google Assistant in the wake of a privacy investigation in Germany.

Amazon, which also has acknowledged it uses human assistants to improve the artificial intelligence of its Alexa-powered devices, recently announced a new feature making it easier to delete all recorded data.

The recent cases may give consumers the impression that someone is “listening” to their conversations even if it’s rarely true.

“From a technology perspective it’s not surprising that these companies use humans to annotate this data, because the machine is not good enough to understand everything,” said Florian Schaub, a University of Michigan professor specializing in human-computer interaction who has done research on digital assistants.

“The problem is that people are not expecting it and it is not transparently communicated.”

Carolina Milanesi, a technology analyst with Creative Strategies, agreed that humans are needed to improve the technology.

“People have a somewhat unrealistic expectation that these assistants will by magic just get better eventually, that they can do machine learning and get better on their own, but right now we’re still at the beginning of AI, and human intervention is still important,” she said.

According to the research firm eMarketer, nearly 112 million people — one-third of the US population — will use a voice assistant at least monthly on any device, with many using AI-powered devices for searches, music and news or information.

A Microsoft survey this year of consumers in five countries found that 80 percent were satisfied with their experience with digital assistants. But 41 percent of those surveyed said they had concerns on privacy, trust and passive listening.