Is Alexa Always Listening? New Study Examines Accidental Triggers of Digital Assistants
The listening capacity of digital assistants like Alexa and Siri has become a major privacy sticking point in the last year. A group of researchers out of Northeastern University and Imperial University of London have been studying smart speakers for the last six months to learn more about what triggers them, and whether or not they are "listening" all the time.
The ongoing study found "no evidence to support" the possibility that digital assistants are always listening. The devices did get activated often in the study, primarily by words that sound similar to the phrases meant to wake them up — for Alexa, examples include words with "k" sounds such as "exclamation", "kevin's car" and "congresswoman" — but they only stay on for short intervals of a few seconds up to nearly a minute.
The researchers set up several smart speakers — a couple of Echos, a Google Home Mini, Apple HomePod and a Microsoft Cortana-powered Harman Kardon Invoke — and built an area where they could monitor and record when and how they were activated. The team played 125 hours of shows on Netflix with heavy dialog, including The Office, Gilmore Girls and Grey's Anatomy and recorded which phrases — outside of the traditional "wake words" — activated the devices.
The study found that the Echo Dot 2nd Generation and the Invoke stayed awake the longest, between 20 and 43 seconds. The rest of the devices had shorter activation period, with nearly half of them lasting 6 seconds or less.
While words that sounded like the wake phrases triggered devices, it was challenging to get repeat results. The team repeated its experiments 12 times, and only 8.44 percent of the activations occurred consistently.
The definition of "listening" in this context can get confusing, even for the people who make the devices. Under questioning on an episode of PBS Frontline last week, Amazon devices chief Dave Limp was asked how Amazon could convince millions of people to install "listening devices" in their home. Limp appeared to misstep when answering the question, insisting that Alexa isn't a listening device, before describing how it's "listening," then backtracking.
"I would first disagree with the premise. It's not a listening device," Limp said. "The device in its core has a detector on it — we call it internally a 'wake word engine' — and that detector is listening — not really listening, it's detecting one thing and one thing only, which is the word you've said that you want to get the attention of that Echo."
The question of how these virtual assistants are monitoring for wake words will become even more important as they spread to different types of Internet of Things devices, such as a smart ring and Alexa-enabled eyeglasses unveiled by Amazon last year.
Throughout 2019, reports surfaced that teams of employees at tech giants including Google, Amazon, Apple and more listen in to some audio clips of utterances made to their smart speakers to improve the digital assistants. Amid privacy concerns, the companies began allowing users to opt out of having their audio clips reviewed.
The report is only step one of a larger project. Future updates will look into how many activations lead to audio recordings sent to the cloud versus processed only on the device; whether cloud providers accurately show all cases of recorded audio; if the speakers adapt and adjust to what they've heard; and how the gender, ethnicity, accent and other factors affect activations of the speakers.
This story originally appeared on GeekWire.
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Eliminating battery waste, developing new hair growth therapy, fixing carbon dioxide. These are among some of the ambitious problems that companies are trying to solve at the First Look SoCal Innovation Showcase beginning Tuesday.
Hosted by nonprofit Alliance for SoCal Innovation, the online event connects early-stage tech and life science companies with investors and serial entrepreneurs.
BioZen Batteries Aims to Solve Our Energy Storage Issues<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://dot.la/media-library/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDI0Nzg5MS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyNTg3OTYyNn0.y9dSMjovB1GtsQ1SZhKiPTIJY3VW0XOE2YXd-JN1xYU/image.jpg?width=980" id="95064" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="c3ad9197ad70005802e6d34d6da3c29d" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Left to right: BioZen Batteries' co-founders Zach Rengert, Nate Kirchhofer and Eric Brigham.<p>Nate Kirchhofer, co-founder and CEO of <a href="https://biozenbatteries.com/" target="_blank">BioZen Batteries</a>, wants to make batteries that will outlive him.</p><p>Santa Barbara-based BioZen creates organic electrolytes, the active material inside a specific type of battery called a "redox flow battery." It's a different type of technology that differs from the lithium batteries often used in mobile applications like cars and phones. Only 5% of those get recycled.</p><p>BioZen's batteries are well suited for green, large-scale energy storage, Kirchhofer said. For example, batteries that help solar panels connect to the grid or provide backup during disasters when the power goes out.</p><p>Kirchhofer, an electrochemist, founded the company in June of 2019 with Zach Rengert, a materials chemist, and Eric Brigham, the company's CFO. Kirchhofer and Rengert met while getting their doctorate at UC Santa Barbara.</p><p>There hasn't yet been a push for sustainable batteries because it isn't economically incentivized, Kirchhofer told dot.LA. He said that his batteries are cheaper than competitors.</p><p>Kirchhofer's product fits into a growing renewable energy market and a social movement in which individuals want to do their part. He's worked for four startups but says this one is poised to make the biggest impact.</p><p>"If it's not our generation that solves climate change, there's not another chance. There's not another Earth." he said. "If we can make these batteries happen, we can truly integrate renewable energy and stop the petroleum-dominated energy paradigm we're part of."</p>
Amplifica's founder Dr. Maksim Plikus
Amplifica Treats Baldness with Mole Molecules<p>Back in 2013, Amplifica's founder Dr. Maksim Plikus began studying hairy moles. Though some find the growths unsightly, his work showed promise for baldness treatment.</p><p>He, along with colleagues at UC Irvine, discovered that molecules from moles that grow excessive hair can induce follicle growth when administered anywhere on the skin.</p><p>"As long as you can tease it out and replicate it in the form of purified molecules, you can achieve essentially what we think would be a novel, revolutionary solution to baldness," Plikus told dot.LA.</p><p>Plikus said his company is the first to solve hair loss by replicating cells from hairy moles to stimulate hair growth. At the moment, hair follicle research has emerged as a leading experimental model for studying stem cells.</p><p>By 2025, hair-loss products are projected to surpass $12 billion, Plikus said. But only two drugs are FDA approved and require daily treatment in the form of pills, which he said come with long-term side effects.</p><p>Amplifica says it's poised to put a more effective and convenient solution on the market. Pinkus' proposed product is a topical solution requiring less frequent application, like getting Botox injections a few times per year.</p>
FixingCO2 Aims to Recycle Fuel from the Air<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://dot.la/media-library/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDI0ODM4My9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzMzA1ODA4MH0.9RqwD9zUN1et1kor8zNPj8WH2kOX6SrysdpRDFT5QMc/image.jpg?width=980" id="daa89" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9851b177139c4b5e06bd9c96fb395083" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
FixingCO2's team. CEO Eldar Akhmetgaliyev is at right.<p><a href="https://fixingco2.com/" target="_blank">FixingCO2</a> got its start on Mars. Like the name says, the company aims to fix the global carbon problem that's fueling climate change.</p><p>In 2018, co-founder Alma Zhanaidarova's professor and research group at UC San Diego received a grant from NASA to build out a reactor that makes renewable fuels and chemicals from carbon dioxide, often a byproduct of industrial waste. The technology was being developed in anticipation of a one-day human mission to Mars, where 95% of the atmosphere is carbon dioxide.</p><p>Now, the San Diego-based startup is commercializing their product for earthlings.</p><p>"It's a different application but the same core technology," co-founder Eldar Akhmetgaliyev told dot.LA. "Instead of making fuels from oil or any other fossil sources, we can make them essentially from air."</p><p>The team is developing the hardware to capture industrial emissions blamed for much of the Earth's warming. The product has significant application for the aviation industry, where planes are built to burn jet fuel that produces carbon emissions.</p><p>"These kinds of technologies provide them a pathway to decarbonization," he said. "They can use fuels made from CO2 so they're not contributing to climate change."</p><p>As fires burn through California and the Pacific Northwest, Akhmetgaliyev said there's urgency for innovators in the carbon tech market. "We're pretty much turning our planet into Mars," he said.</p><p>He said that by 2050, about 14% of overall carbon reduction will come from carbon capture and utilization (CCUS) technology like his.</p><p>"The market hasn't met its opportunity and with the effects of climate change being seen everyday, there's going to be more drive towards these low carbon technologies."</p>
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- L.A.-based Artie, which began in 2018 as a platform to help game publishers build AI-enhanced video game characters but shifted its focus to enabling a distribution method that allows game publishers to circumvent app stores, has reopened its seed round.
- The company plans to go to market later this year with celebrity and IP partnerships, then start attracting third-party game publishers and players to its platform with its distribution technology. In the long run it hopes to grow its user base with its original focus of AI-for-gaming features.
- Artie has raised $8 million from investors, including the founders of Zynga, Shutterstock and YouTube; Warner Music Group; Jeffrey Katzenberg's WndrCo; and three L.A.-based venture firms including Scooter Braun's Raised In Space.
In late 2018, Ryan Horrigan and Armando Kirwin set out to bring to life video game characters who could see and understand and interact with the gamers on the other side of the screen. They quickly recognized a problem that has now taken the tech world by storm: App stores create friction.