An Amazon Echo device. (Tony Webster/Flickr)

The secret behind AI assistants

To answer the questions you ask Alexa, Siri, and Google Assistant, tech companies have employed armies contractors to listen to recordings and take notes.

AI assistants -- bots like Alexa and Siri that answer your questions, set your alarms and order goods online for you -- are among the most buzzed about consumer product features of the last several years.

Apple, Amazon, Google and Samsung have each made their own, pre-installing them on phones, tablets, smart speakers and home appliances. While numbers can be hard to come by, Amazon announced in January, 2019 that they'd sold over 100 million smart speakers since launching its first Alexa services in 2014.

These companies have marketed their assistants' use of artificial intelligence and machine learning technology, saying that helps them answer questions creatively and improve the more they're used.

However, it wasn't until contractors began going to the press that we learned to the role humans play in the background.


Facebook reinstates program to record audio on its Portal smart home devices

September 19th
Like Amazon, Google, Apple and Microsoft, the company is now under fire for manually listening to AI assistant-recorded audio.

Microsoft updates privacy policy to clearly state that humans listen to Skype and Cortana audio

August 16th
Motherboard found updated language in privacy statements.

Motherboard speaks with a Microsoft contractor who reviews Skype call audio

August 7th
The interview describes how contractors listen to real call recordings to review and improve Skype's live translation feature

Amazon adds option allowing users to disable human reviews of their Alexa recordings

August 2nd
The move comes after Bloomberg discovered in April the company uses contractors and employees to review audio clips recorded by Alexa

Google tells privacy watch dog that it ceased manual Google Assistant audio clip reviews

August 2nd
The Germany privacy watch dog informed Google that its manual review of audio clips was in violation of GDPR

Apple suspends human review of Siri recordings

August 1st
Following a Guardian report that contractors listen to sexual acts and other private encounters, Apple has suspended its manual review program.

Apple uses contractors to review Siri recordings, including those made on accident

July 26th
The Guardian spoke with a contractor who described listening to sexual encounters, patient-doctor conersations, and drug deals.

A Belgian news outlet was able to identify people from their leaked Google Assistant and Home audio recordings

July 11th
Privacy policies tell you a lot about the way large company AIs work, and don't.

Bloomberg talks to Amazon contractors who review Alexa recordings

April 10th
Amazon employs contractors and full-time employees to listen to, transcribe and annotate recordings to improve Alexa's responses