Amazon Alexa Factoids: A Look Behind the Storefront Curtains

November 24, 2023

green-dino_thumb_thumb_thumbThis essay is the work of a dumb dinobaby. No smart software required.

Hey, Amazon admirers, I noted some interesting (allegedly accurate factoids) in “Amazon Alexa to Lose $10 Billion This Year.” No, I was not pulled by interesting puddle of red ink.


Alexa loves to sidestep certain questions. Thanks, MSFT Copilot. Nice work even though you are making life difficult for Google’s senior management today.

Let me share four items which I thought interesting. Please, navigate to the original write up to get the full monte. (I support the tailor selling civvies, not the card game.)

  1. “Just about every plan to monetize Alexa has failed, with one former employee calling Alexa ‘a colossal failure of imagination,’ and ‘a wasted opportunity.’” [I noted the word colossal.]
  2. “Amazon can’t make money from Alexa telling you the weather”
  3. “I worked in the Amazon Alexa division. The level of incompetence coupled with arrogance was astounding.”
  4. “FAANG has gotten so large that the stock bump that comes from narrative outpaces actual revenue from working products.”

Now how about the management philosophy behind these allegedly accurate statements? It sounds like the consequences of doing high school science club field trip planning. Not sure how those precepts work? Just do a bit of reading about the OpenAI – Sam AI-Man hootenanny.

Stephen E Arnold, November 24, 2023

Who Needs Books? Plus They Burn As Well As the Scrolls in the Library at Alexandria

September 20, 2022

Book banning is not new. Ever since humans could think and publish controversial ideas, literature has been banned. In ancient times, Abrahamic religious documents were deemed taboo. The last hundred years showed book banning examples in Nazi Germany, the socialist Soviet Union, and communist China continues to ban many works. The United States should be free of this quandary given the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights, but “over-concerned” people are advocating for the removal of titles. The Grid runs down the current state of book bans in, “Book Banning In US Schools Has Reached An All-Time High: What This Means, And How We Got Here.”

In the past, most books that were banned dealt with magic and depictions of sex. Nowadays the books challenged the most are about gender and sexual orientation, ethnic diversity, and alternative takes on US history:

“Among the 10 most-challenged titles of 2021 were those from prominent Black writers Ibram X. Kendi, Jason Reynolds and Angie Thomas, according to the ALA. And five of the top 10 were challenged specifically because of their LGBTQ content.

From a broader perspective, of the 1,000-plus books banned from July 2021 to March 2022, 41 percent had main characters of color, 22 percent directly addressed race and racism, and 33 percent directly included LGBTQ themes and characters.”

Many groups working to ban titles are trying to protect childhood innocence. Some are not against these titles being published, but believe they do not belong in schools. It is hard to apply First Amendment rights to school curricula, because schools are under the control of school administrations. These administrations institute curricula and can remove books deemed “offensive.” Groups that do sue to take books out of libraries and bookstores are facing a losing battle because they are protected by the First Amendment.

While the Internet allows kids to access books and other information, Internet access is not 100% universal for people in rural and low-income areas. When a book is banned from libraries or schools, kids will never have access to it.

Banning books makes them more popular. Sometimes the banning helps books perform better than if they had been left alone. Book banning does not serve any purpose other than perpetrating willful ignorance.

Whitney Grace, September 20, 2022

Sci-Hub: Is It Evil Personified in Alexandra Elbakyan, a modern Abaddon?

July 1, 2021

If you are not familiar with professional publishing, you may find “Is the Pirate Queen Scientific Publishing in Real Trouble This Time?” particularly fascinating. Founded by Alexandra Elbakyan in 2011, Sci-Hub has become the go to source of academic or professional publishing materials. One key point: Unlike commercial services, Sci-Hub is a freebie. In the world of Disney infused copyright ideas, Mickey Mouse and research about children’s heart disease are not available without paying. Parking at DisneyLand is a bargain compared to the fees assessed for a single two-page document. The kid’s life? Not part of the copyright approach to government funded research.

If you have some experience with the business models of the big outfits running peer-reviewed publications, you will get a kick out of passages like this one:

According to the publishers who brought the case in India, quite a bit. Pirate sites like Sci-Hub “threaten the integrity of the scientific record, and the safety of university and personal data,” a joint statement reads. It goes on to say that sites like Sci-Hub “have no incentive to ensure the accuracy of scientific articles, no incentive to ensure published papers meet ethical standards, and no incentive to retract or correct articles if issues arise.”

My hunch is that most people who explain that “I am an online expert” cannot differentiate between a blog post, a paper on ArXiv, an IEEE pdf, and a full text document from Lexis. In my experience, few online wizards can answer these questions:

  1. Once a research paper is complete, does the author have to pay the publisher of the journal to which the write up is submitted?
  2. Are the “peer reviewers” paid to do the often very, very difficult work of checking that the information in the document is correct, the statistics accurate as far as the reviewers can determine, and the “value” of the document will result in learning, not in harm?
  3. Are the companies running professional publishing operations monopolies or oligopolies?
  4. Are documents in professional publishers’ span of control updated, are errors corrected, are cabals of friendly experts disabused from promoting a graduate student’s, friend’s, or colleague’s write up? Are exchanges of favors among reviewers ignored or denied?
  5. Are errors in online documents corrected after those original documents are posted online?
  6. Are online documents known to be fraudulent or containing non reproducible results removed from repositories?
  7. Are libraries subject to ever increasing fees because those institutions might lose accreditation if research content were not provided to students, researchers, and other staff?
  8. What is the explicit link between tenure at a university and publishing in journals operated by commercial professional publishing companies? Hint: Sword of Damocles and a horse hair.

Struggling with some of the answers? No surprise. Like the pharmaceutical industry and those engaged in SMS spam services, certain information about business methods are not disclosed. And if revealed, the business processes are denied. If you want example, just watch reruns of the investigations of some of the high profile high technology companies testifying before the US Congress.

This “information wants to be free” baloney is not the way “real” online works. Here’s an example. I was asked to submit a version of my law enforcement centric report about Amazon’s policeware. Some person contacted me via LinkedIn and said a draft was due in December 2019. I said, “My report is not for academics. I don’t care if you publish it, just leave me out of the professional publishing razzle dazzle.” I pointed out that I was not an academic; I was not changing anything in the manuscript; and I was not sure if the information in my report would make any sense whatsoever to the handful of people who might read the collection of essays.

I forget about the write up: I never filled out any online forms; I never sent a bill of $1.00 (because I have a policy of getting paid for some of my research); and I routed email from the person who asked me to submit a chapter and the assorted youthful folks at the European publishing company to the Junk folder on my systems.

And what did I receive a couple of days ago? I got an email addressed to “Dear Professor Arnold.” The email wanted me to promote my chapter and the book. Okay, this blog posts is promoting the chapter. Helpful, right? Some of these outfits cannot differentiate between a PhD program drop out and a real live PhD driving for Uber. Keen powers of discrimination for sure.

Net net: Alexandrea Elbakyan, who is a student in everyone’s favorite country, is the enemy. Courts in several countries have determined that Ms. Elbakyan is a threat to learning, knowledge sharing, and “way” research content is to be made available. Yep, Elsevier is waiting for its $15 million check from Ms. Abaddon. Oh, sorry. I meant Ms. Elbakyan.

Stephen E Arnold, July 1, 2021

Amazon: Employee Surveillance and the Bezos Bulldozer with DeepLens, Ring, and Alexa Upgrades

September 4, 2020

Editor’s Note: This link to Eyes Everywhere: Amazon’s Surveillance Infrastructure and Revitalizing Worker Power may go bad; that is, happy 404 to you. There’s not much DarkCyber can do. Just a heads up, gentle reader.

The information in a report by Open Markets called Amazon’s Surveillance Infrastructure and Revitalizing Worker Power may be difficult to verify and comprehend. People think of Amazon in terms of boxes with smiley faces and quick deliveries of dog food and Lightning cables.


Happy Amazon boxes.

The 34 page document paints a picture of sad Amazon boxes.


The main point is that the Bezos bulldozer drives over employees, not just local, regional, and national retail outlets:

A fundamental aspect of its power is the corporation’s ability to surveil every aspect of its workers’ behavior and use the surveillance to create a harsh and dehumanizing working environment that produces a constant state of fear, as well as physical and mental anguish. The corporation’s extensive and pervasive surveillance practices deter workers from collectively organizing and harm their physical and mental health. Amazon’s vast surveillance infrastructure constantly makes workers aware that every single movement they make is tracked and scrutinized. When workers make the slightest mistake, Amazon can use its surveillance infrastructure to terminate them.

Several observations:

  1. Amazon is doing what Amazon does. Just like beavers doing what beavers do. Changing behavior is not easy. Evidence: Ask the parents of a child addicted to opioids.
  2. Stakeholders are happy. Think of the the song with the line “money, money, money.”
  3. Amazon has the cash, clout, and commitment to pay for lobbying the US government. So far the President of the United States has been able to catch Amazon’s attention with a JEDI sword strike, but that’s not slowed down Darth Jeff.

Net net: After 20 plus years of zero meaningful regulation, the activities of the Bezos bulldozer should be viewed as a force (like “May the force be with you.”) DarkCyber wants to point out that Amazon is also in the policeware business. The write up may be viewed as validation of Amazon’s investments in this market sector.

Stephen E Arnold, September 4, 2020

Amazon Alexa Is Sensitive

August 17, 2020

The gimmick behind digital assistants is with a simple vocal command, using a smart speaker like Amazon Echo, users have access to knowledge and can complete small tasks. Amazon is either very clever or very clumsy when it comes to digital assistant Alexa. Venture Beat shares that, “Researchers Identify Dozens Of Words That Accidentally Trigger Amazon Echo Speakers” in a recent study.

The problem with digital assistants, other than them recording conversations and storing them to the cloud, is who will have access tot these conversations. LeakyPick is a platform that investigates microphone equipped devices and monitors network traffic for audio transmissions. LeakyPick was founded by University of Darmstadt, North Carolina State University, and the University of Paris Saclay.

LeakyPick was designed to test when smart speakers are activated:

“LeakyPick — which the researchers claim is 94% accurate at detecting speech traffic — works for both devices that use a wakeword and those that don’t, like security cameras and smoke alarms. In the case of the former, it’s preconfigured to prefix probes with known wakewords and noises (e.g., “Alexa,” “Hey Google”), and on the network level, it looks for “bursting,” where microphone-enabled devices that don’t typically send much data cause increased network traffic. A statistical probing step serves to filter out cases where bursts result from non-audio transmissions.”

To identify words that could activate smart speakers, LeakyPick uses all words in a phoneme dictionary. After testing smart speakers: Echo Dot, HomePod, and Google Home over fifty-two days. LeakyPick discovered that the Echo Dot reacted to eighty-nine words, some phonetically different from Alexa, to activate.

Amazon responded it built privacy deep into Alexa and sometimes smart speakers respond to words other than command signals.

LeakyPick, however, does show potential for testing smart home privacy and how to prevent them.

Whitney Grace, August 17, 2020

Alexa, the Mom

January 2, 2020

Amazon not only wants to sell computer technology and every conceivable item on Earth, but the company also wants to move into the healthcare industry. TechCrunch reports that “Amazon Launches Medication Management Features For Alexa.” Amazon’s Alexa, a smart speaker, is useful for a lot of things. Alexa can be used to set reminders, book appointments, order things from Amazon, play music, answer questions, contact emergency services, and spy on users for the CIA or FBI. While the latter has not been confirmed, Amazon wants Alexa to assist people with their medications.

Amazon developed a medication management feature that allows people to set medication reminders and request refills using Alexa. Currently the service is only available at Giant Eagle Pharmacy, a retailer in the Midwest and East Coast. Alexa is a tool of the future and simplifies tasks with vocal commands:

“ ‘Voice has proven to be beneficial for a variety of use cases because it removes barriers, and simplifies daily tasks. We believe this new Alexa feature will help simplify the way people manage their medication by removing the need to continuously think about what medications they’ve taken that day or what they need to take,’ noted Rachel Jiang, Head of Alexa Health & Wellness, in an announcement about the new features. ‘We want to make it easy for people to get the information they need and to manage their healthcare needs at home while maintaining the privacy and security of their information, and hope this feature is a step toward that vision,’ she added.”

Amazon’s move into the healthcare industry includes purchasing online pharmacy PillPack and Health Navigator. Amazon plans to transform Health Navigator into the company’s employee health program dubbed Amazon Care. The biggest barrier Amazon faces is guaranteeing that Alexa follows HIPPA laws. Amazon is developing protocols to be HIPPA compliant, such as deleting voice records from Alexa’s skills and creating personal passcodes. But secure? Surveillance centric? Hmmm.

Whitney Grace, January 2, 2020

Amazon Alexa: What Happened? Who Knew?

November 26, 2019

I read a somewhat disingenuous tale of Amazon’s Alexa. Navigate to “We Never Anticipated Alexa to Have Such a Profound Impact on Society” and make your own determination. Note: You will need to disable your ad blocker to view this article from Hindu Business Line. Lucky you! Extra work. Surprises abound.

The main idea in the story is that Amazon created Alexa. Everything that took place was a bit of a shock. That includes, I suppose, the surveillance potential, the data stream value, and the willingness of people to put Jeff Bezos’ ear in their homes and offices. Yep, a surprise. Wow.

The write up includes a statement or two from an Amazonian, who remains surprised; for instance:

We have onboarded a lot of such training data. Hindi seemed like the next logical step. We’ll keep pushing the envelope. What has really caught our attention in India is the fact that Alexa and Echo devices are used by a lot of schools to teach kids English, general knowledge and other subjects. This is really inspiring and we will try bringing services and skills to enhance this process. We never anticipated this device which started off as a fancy geeky Star Trek-inspired tool to have such a profound impact on the society. Today, we are trying to make it more useful to students, teachers, people with vision challenges and so on.

Ah, surprise.

Stephen E Arnold, November 26, 2019

Alexa: Big Brother and Big Sister

June 2, 2019

The younger generations live their lives online, so it is surprising when one shows concern about privacy. The Guardian’s Comedic journalist Tim Dowling wrote about his son’s total dislike for Amazon’s Alexa in, “Tim Dowling: Two Alexas Have Moved In, And They’re Terrifying.” Smart speakers are Big Brother’s newest tool, because it is always listening.

Dowling was sent two free Alexa’s to review for his column and coerced his son into setting them up in his home. What is even funnier is that they are used Alexas and one of them had googly eyes, so one is “always watching.” The son in question is nineteen years old, but is scared of Alexa. Dowling and his offspring do not like Alexa, because she is listening. At first, it is charming to have questions answered instantaneously, but it quickly turns when they nearly avoid buying an expensive laptop. They do ask Alexa, how many people are spying on them right then, but the speaker did not known the answer. Dowling’s eldest child, however, was quite keen on the speakers and had one tell him the latest football scores (that is soccer for the US).

It got worse for the youngest one when Dowling had to leave him alone in the house with the two Alexas:

“ ‘Walk the dog, feed the cat, don’t say ‘Alexa’, and you’ll be fine,’ I say.

‘Great,’ he says.

Some hours later, I receive an email informing me that I will not be required to write about Alexa after all. A few minutes after that, I receive an apology from the youngest one, telling me he had to unplug both Alexas: they had started talking to each other.”

What do Alexas discuss? They probably ceaselessly ask one another to keep repeating, because they could not quite get what the other is saying. Sure, smart speakers are fun. They are a voice activated Google and radio, but they are always listening. Listening to hear the next command or reporting it to the government.

Whitney Grace, June 2, 2019

Alexa Is Still Taking Language Lessons

August 24, 2018

Though Amazon has been aware of the problem for a while, Alexa still responds better to people who sound like those she grew up with than she does to others. It is a problem many of us can relate to, but one the company really needs to solve as it continues to deploy its voice-activated digital assistant worldwide.   TheNextWeb cites a recent Washington Post study as it reports, “Alexa Needs Better Training to Understand Non-American Accents.” It is worth noting it is not just foreign accents the software cannot recognize—the device has trouble with many regional dialects within the US, as well.

“The team had more than 100 people from nearly 20 US cities dictate thousands of voice commands to Alexa. From the exercise, it found that Amazon’s Alexa-based voice-activated speaker was 30 percent less likely to comprehend commands issued by people with non-American accents. The Washington Post also reported that people with Spanish as their first language were understood 6 percent less often than people who grew up around California or Washington and spoke English as a first language.Amazon officials also admitted to The Washington Post that grasping non-American accents poses a major challenge both in keeping current Amazon Echo users satisfied, and expanding sales of their devices worldwide. Rachael Tatman, a Kaggle data scientist with expertise in speech recognition, told The Washington Post that this was evidence of bias in the training provided to voice recognition systems.‘These systems are going to work best for white, highly educated, upper-middle-class Americans, probably from the West Coast, because that’s the group that’s had access to the technology from the very beginning,’ she said.”

Yes, the bias we find here is the natural result of working with what you have where you are, and perhaps Amazon can be forgiven for not foreseeing the problem from the beginning. Perhaps. The article grants that the company has been working toward a resolution, and references their efforts to prepare for the Indian market as an example. It seems to be slow going.

Cynthia Murrell, August 24, 2018

Has Alexa Become Unstoppable?

August 8, 2018

But for 98 percent of Alexa users’ failure to buy stuff by talking to Alexa, the device looks like a successful one.

Some at Beyond Search believe that digital home assistants are basically spying on us. Perhaps conversations and requests are being cataloged, and in some cases used against some in court. Is it possible that Amazon’s intelligence services have access to the Alexified content.

One hopes Google and Amazon and the like aren’t aiming to be big brother, Perhaps a different objective is in play. The CNBC story, “Amazon Alexa vs. Google Home: Advertisers Weigh In.”

We learned:

“The most expensive ad space in the future will be Alexa…hey are really just integrated in the shopping platform…. This has also opened up the door for marketers to sell items through Alexa apps. VaynerMedia worked on converting popular mobile game “Heads Up!” for Alexa, and was the first to integrate a voice-activated one time payment functionality to buy add-ons.

This story is not alone in predicting this. The Wall Street Journal called your home assistant “the new battleground” for ad dollars. If that is the case, we predict the advertisers are right and Amazon will have the advantage. While it might be projecting, we wouldn’t be surprised if this is already the end of Google Home. Money talks and Amazon has a giant window into that world. But the intelligence angle continues to capture our attention.

Patrick Roland, August 8, 2018

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