Amazon Says Alexa Can Predict ‘Latent’ Requests—Even If You Don’t Say Them

Amazon Alexa

Amazon says Alexa can now anticipate user requests even if they aren’t explicitly stated, the company announced Wednesday, a feature that makes the voice assistant smarter, but that critics are calling annoying or creepy.

Amazon said in a blog post Alexa can “infer customers’ latent goals—goals that are implicit in customer requests but not directly expressed.”

Amazon uses this as an example: If a user asks,“How long does it take to steep tea?” Alexa may respond, “Five minutes is a good place to start.” and “Would you like me to set a timer for five minutes?”

The technology behind latent goal prediction is complex and involved building complicated algorithms that avoid goofs, such as when an early prototype incorrectly asked, “Do you want me to play chicken sounds?” after a customer asked for “recipes for chicken,” Amazon said.

Not every interaction will end with a goal prediction, but it’s also unclear how or if users can opt out and Amazon did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Forbes.

Amazon says the capability is already available to English-speaking customers in the U.S.

Users are already predicting the new feature will be annoying or quipped it may be a way to hit users with more targeted ads.

“Every time Alexa finishes an answer and then says ‘By the way…’ I want to chuck my Echo across the room. There’s no way to turn it off by telling Alexa to cut it out, you have to dig through innumerable app settings. So this is neat but no thanks,” tweeted Dieter Bohn, executive editor of The Verge.

“Alexa is always trying to upsell me these days. The latest: ‘Oh you want to set a timer. A good thing to do while you wait is to listen to music. Subscribe to Amazon Prime Music now.’” joked New York Times reporter (and Forbes alumna) Kashmir Hill.

KEY BACKGROUND

Amazon says the new capability advances its goal of making Alexa interactions less robotic and stilted. But it’s also part of Amazon’s long-term bid to make the voice assistant proactive rather than passive, anticipating what users want instead of waiting for requests, MIT Technology Review reported. Privacy groups worry these ambitions aren’t coupled with robust enough safeguards for user data and will make the technology invasive.

CRUCIAL QUOTE

 “Amazon’s goal for Alexa is that customers should find interacting with her as natural as interacting with another human being,” Amazon said in the blog post.

TANGENT

Amazon’s quest to predict things about its users doesn’t just involve Alexa. The e-commerce giant in August launched Halo, a fitness tracker that boasts the ability to read your emotions based on your tone of voice, a feature critics have called “creepy.”

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