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Amazon Is Crowdsourcing Alexa’s Answers. Smart Tactic or a Questionable Move?

Date published: 2019-09-16
Originally published: Here. Excerpt below.

Did Albert Einstein wear socks? How do you prevent tears when cutting an onion? Did Burt Reynolds marry Sally Field? What makes wasabi green? The average person might not know the answer to these questions, but Amazon Alexa, through the new Alexa Answers portal that was announced Thursday, might. Well, more accurately, an Alexa user could.
An online community whereanyone who logs in can suggest answers to user-supplied questions posed to the voice-activated Alexa A.I. assistant, Alexa Answers is designed to answer the tough questions that cant already be answered by the voice-enabled assistant. Once the answers are submitted, they are vetted for accuracy, scored, and if they are good enough, make their way back to Alexa users.
But is crowdsourcing Alexa's smarts a good idea? From a Microsoft chatbot subverted by racist trolls to Yahoo Answers, a similar service to Alexa Answers that has become notoriously rife with bad information, the past few years have been littered with cases of user-generated data systems gone bad. So it's not hard to imagine the worst-case scenario: an Alexa-backed smart speaker blithely spouting fake news, dangerous conspiracy theories, or white supremacist talking points.
Describing Alexa Answers to Fast Company, Bill Barton, Amazons Vice President of Alexa Information, struck an optimistic tone. Were leaning into the positive energy and good faith of the contributors," he said. "And we use machine learning and algorithms to weed out the noisy few, the bad few.
Experts on data use and its impacts are markedly less cheery.
We have plenty of examples of why this is not going to play out well, says Dr. Chris Gillard, who studies the data policies of Amazon and other tech companies at Macomb Community College near Detroit. Crowdsourcing data, and then using that data in training the Alexa algorithm, he says, presents pitfalls that Amazon seem intent on stepping right into.
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