Amazon patents ‘voice-sniffing’ algorithms

Amazon.com, Inc. is an American electronic commerce and cloud computing company based in Seattle, Washington that was founded by Jeff Bezos on July 5, 1994. The tech giant is the largest Internet retailer in the world as measured by revenue and market capitalization, and second largest after Alibaba Group in terms of total sales. The amazon.com website started as an online bookstore and later diversified to sell video downloads/streaming, MP3 downloads/streaming, audiobook downloads/streaming, softwarevideo gameselectronics, apparel, furniture, food, toys, and jewelry. The company also produces consumer electronics, Kindle e-readersFire tabletsFire TV, and Echo, and is the world’s largest provider of cloud infrastructure services (IaaS and PaaS). Amazon also sells certain low-end products under its in-house brand AmazonBasics. Amazon has separate retail websites for the United States, the United Kingdom and Ireland, France, Canada, Germany, Italy, Spain, Netherlands, Australia, Brazil, Japan, China, India, and Mexico. In 2016, Dutch, Polish, and Turkish language versions of the German Amazon website were also launched. Amazon also offers international shipping of some of its products to certain other countries.

In 2015, Amazon surpassed Walmart as the most valuable retailer in the United States by market capitalization. Amazon is the fourth most valuable public company in the world, the largest Internet company by revenue in the world, and the eighth largest employer in the United States. In 2017, Amazon acquired Whole Foods Market for $13.4 billion, which vastly increased Amazon’s presence as a brick-and-mortar retailer. The acquisition was interpreted by some as a direct attempt to challenge Walmart‘s traditional retail stores.

But recently, the e-commerce giant has developed and filed a patent for technology which could allow its smart speakers to capture details of conversations in order to improve targeted advertising, even when not deliberately activated. At present, while smart speakers are always ‘listening’ to surrounding conversation, they do not record what they hear unless activated by a trigger word or phrase such as “Echo”, “Alexa” or “Okay, Google”. However, if Amazon’s ‘voice sniffer algorithms’ are worked into its smart speakers, these speakers could be activated not just by a set trigger word or phrase, but by other possible triggers which indicate users’ interests.

For instance, if a recognized user states that “I love ballet”, or “my husband enjoys sushi”, the smart speaker may record and analyze this data, and use it to personalize advertising. The user may then expect to see adverts, personalized offers and product recommendations relating to ballet and sushi. The data may also be made available to friends and family for gift recommendations, according to the patent. “A computing device can capture voice content, such as when a user speaks into or near the device,” the patent says. “One or more sniffer algorithms or processes can attempt to identify trigger words in the voice content, which can indicate a level of interest of the user, the identified keywords can be stored and/or transmitted to an appropriate location accessible to entities such as advertisers or content providers who can use the keywords to attempt to select or customise content that is likely relevant to the user.”

According to the patent application, both positive and negative triggers can be used to tailor the user’s advertising profile; if a negative trigger word is used, such as “hate”, this will indicate that the user is unlikely to respond well to that subject being advertised. Amazon has stated that it does not use customers’ voice recordings to target adverts and that this patent was submitted while the company was “[exploring] the full possibilities of new technology”.

“Patents take multiple years to receive and do not necessarily reflect current developments in products and services,” an Amazon spokesperson told ABC News. The patent was filed with the US Patent and Trademark Office in November 2017. In September 2016, Google patented similar technology, which could allow its smart home device to capture images and video from within a user’s home for personalized advertising, for instance, noticing a copy of ‘The Godfather’ in the home and suggesting that the user goes to watch the film at a nearby cinema. Google, like Amazon, has stated that its smart home devices do not invade user privacy, despite widespread concerns about the impact of smart home devices on privacy.

Amazon says it does not eavesdrop on customers’ conversations to target advertising at them after it emerged it had patented “voice-sniffing” tech. The patent describes listening to conversations and building a profile of customers’ likes and dislikes. On more than one occasion during Mark Zuckerberg’s congressional grilling this week he was asked if Facebook secretly listens to people through their phone to target them with ads. The Facebook CEO appeared pleased to be able to confirm such an idea as a conspiracy theory and assuage the concerns of senators that the company engages in such a thing. But that is exactly what other tech firms are trying to do. Earlier this month it was reported that Amazon filed a “voice sniffing” patent last year to eavesdrop on conversations, looking for certain words. Currently, the voice-activated speaker is only supposed to be triggered by its name. Once a user says “Hey Alexa” it begins sucking in all audio around it so it can respond to commands.

Amazon keeps all that data but it is reportedly thinking about taking things a step further.

Amazon says it can use the advanced artificial intelligence that would allow the device to listen to a conversation and analyze it for certain words that are said. Theoretically, if you’re talking to your friend about a new video game that you’re really enjoying, the little smart speaker will file that nugget of information away. A “voice-sniffer algorithm” is what the Amazon patent labeled the technology.

It would use trigger words such as “like”, “love” and “hate” to build profiles on users to better target them with advertising. “The more words they collect, the more the company gets to know you,” Daniel Burrus, a US tech analyst told America’s ABC. By building a profile of keywords and topics discussed by owners of the smart speaker, Amazon hopes it can learn even more about our tastes and desires. “The identified keywords can be stored and/or transmitted to an appropriate location accessible to entities such as advertisers or content providers who can use the keywords to attempt to select or customize the content that is likely relevant to the user,” the patent said.

The data could also be made available to friends of the user for gift buying, according to the patent.

Tech companies file huge amount of patients each year so any given patent should not be taken as a sign of genuine intention. For instance, last year Amazon filed more than 1960 patents, a majority of which were granted. According to the ABC, as of earlier this month, this particular patent had not yet been awarded by the US patent office.

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