On Thursday, a troubling story from the Pacific Northwest told of a Portland family whose private conversation was recorded by their Amazon Alexa device (from the company’s Echo line) and sent to someone in their contact list. Amazon confirmed this incident did happen, and now the company has an explanation.
To recap: a woman named Danielle was contacted by one of her husband’s employees in Seattle — this employee was the random person on the contact list — who explained that they received a conversation the family was having about hardwood floors. Danielle unplugged all of her Alexa devices and sought an explanation from Amazon, which was looking into the strange incident.
According to Amazon — which made a statement to The Verge — the Echo in question heard something which caused it to mistake common conversation as commands. The company says:
“Echo woke up due to a word in background conversation sounding like “Alexa.” Then, the subsequent conversation was heard as a “send message” request. At which point, Alexa said out loud “To whom?” At which point, the background conversation was interpreted as a name in the customers contact list. Alexa then asked out loud, “[contact name], right?” Alexa then interpreted background conversation as “right”. As unlikely as this string of events is, we are evaluating options to make this case even less likely.”
While the incident certainly seems “unlikely,” as Amazon describes it, we’re wondering: does this explanation really make Echo users feel any better? At the very least, this reveals a major issue with Alexa’s voice recognition. We don’t know what words were being said, but the device apparently went through a series of commands from the unrelated conversation which would resemble something you might see used as a plot point in a sitcom episode about smart technology.
Again, despite the usefulness of Alexa-enabled Echo speakers for smart home purposes — and their convenience for other things — we’ve always had reservations about the products. And this incident only adds to those concerns. But Amazon has already sold millions of Echo devices, so we’re hoping the company can improve its software to end issues like these for good.