Today in Ethics of AI/ML – 4/10/19
What’s the story?
Technology reporters uncovered that Amazon Inc. employees and workers listen to voice recordings of users, captured by its Echo speaker devices. These recordings are used to train and improve the machine learning/AI software’s accuracy in understanding and responding to human commands.
What does it mean?
According to privacy experts, the average consumer assumes that the Echo speakers use some magic software to respond to their commands and very few suspect that a human is listening to their intimate conversations. “Human-in-the-loop” is a common practice in the technology world where a human steps in to help the machine fill the gaps in its understanding of human speech and improve its accuracy. Privacy experts have derided it as an invasion of privacy and raised alarms about potential abuse of this personal information. Amazon asserts it only reviews a small sample of recordings and provided assurances about safeguards in place to protect recorded information from being personally identifiable. However, an earlier Intercept report uncovered that employees at Amazon’s doorbell camera division, Ring were manually identifying information in videos captured by their product to help train their software. So trust is in short supply for the tech giant. Human review of private recordings also opens up a pandora’s box of ethical and legal questions. For example, when workers came across what they thought was a sexual assault, they couldn’t report it because of the company’s strict policy against interference.
What’s the bottom line?
In the short term, other than well-justified outcry from privacy experts and consumer advocates, there isn’t much legal precedence to prevent Amazon employees from recording/listening to these recordings. Negative public sentiment may result in more revisions to Amazon’s fine print and vehement assurances by the company. Expect more of this tug and pull as tech giants try to balance the need for privacy, transparency while also keeping their customer satisfaction and ultimately, their profits high. What also will need to be addressed is this murky area of the company’s obligation as it relates to potentially criminal and illegal activities it encounters through its devices/platforms. This is a conundrum that tech giants like Facebook are already grappling with and will continue to do so in the coming months and years.