The gods live in our apps

Nazarul Islam | Published: 00:00, Dec 07,2019 | Updated: 00:49, Dec 07,2019


— TechCrunch/Getty Images/Agence France-Presse/Amy Osborne

OUR lives revolve pretty much around the lovely apps that we have created and installed in our hand-held devices. We affectionately call them our ‘i-phones’. These small gadgets govern our everyday pastime and continue to offer us non-stop thrill, excitement and addiction. We seem to be lost in our fantasies or in a magical world that thrives on a screen to keep us, the users, totally tranced and unmindful to the ultimate long-term cost each one of us is likely to incur.

Tens of millions of people use smart speakers and their voice software to play games, find music or trawl for trivia. Millions more are reluctant to invite the devices and their powerful microphones to their homes out of concern that someone might be listening.

Today, tech giants have offered their users the opportunity to download apps free. As a part of a cleverly conceived business plan, they have reportedly continued to hire hundreds of outside contractors and pay money to transcribe clips of audio from users of their services.

This humongous work has rattled the contract employees who are not told where the audio was recorded or how it was obtained — their job is only to transcribe the contents. This was confirmed by those people on anonymity for fear of losing jobs. They continuously hear Facebook users’ conversations, sometimes with vulgar content, but the hired transcribers do not know why their employers, Facebook, needs them transcribed.

After some deliberations, Facebook did confirm that it had been transcribing users’ audio and said it will no longer do so in the light of scrutiny that had followed into the practices of their competitors. In an official statement, an official of the company remarked: ‘Much like Apple and Google, we paused human review of audio more than a week ago.’

This company further stressed that the users who were affected had selected the option in Facebook’s Messenger app to have their voice chats transcribed. The contractors were checking whether Facebook’s artificial intelligence correctly interpreted the messages, which were anonymised.

Big tech companies including Amazon Inc and Apple Inc have come under fire for collecting audio snippets from consumer computing devices and subjecting the clips to human review, a practice that critics say invades privacy. Bloomberg first reported this April that Amazon had a team of thousands of workers around the world listening to audio requests with the goal of improving the software and a similar human review had been used for Apple’s Siri and Alphabet Inc’s Google Assistant.

Apple and Google have since confirmed that they no longer engage in the practice and Amazon said it will let users opt out of the human review practices.

The social networking giant, which recently completed a $5.0 billion settlement with the US Federal Trade Commission, after a probe of its privacy practices, has long denied that it collects audio from users to publish adverts or help to determine what people see in their news feeds. The chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg bluntly denied the idea directly in Congressional testimony.

‘You’re talking about this conspiracy theory that gets passed around that we listen to what’s going on on your microphone and use that for ads’, Zuckerberg has told US senator Gary Peters in April of 2018. ‘We don’t do that.’

In follow-up answers for the House of Congress, the company deliberated that it ‘only accessed users’ microphone if the user has given our app permission and if they are actively using a specific feature that requires audio [like voice messaging features]’. The Menlo Park, California-based company does not address what happens to the audio afterwards.

Shares of Facebook pared gains following the report. The stock was up 1.6 per cent at $188.37 at 3:30pm Tuesday in New York, compared with an earlier increase of as much as 3.2 per cent. This giant has not disclosed to users that third parties may review their audio. That has led some contractors to feel their work is unethical, according to the people with knowledge of the matter.

At least one firm reportedly reviewing user conversations is TaskUs Inc, located in Santa Monica, California-based outsourcing firm, with outposts around the world. The people stated: ‘Facebook is one of TaskUs’s largest and most important clients, but employees aren’t allowed to mention publicly who their work is for. They call the client by the code name “Prism”.’

Facebook also uses TaskUs to review content that may also be possibly in violation of policies. There are also TaskUs teams working on election preparation and screening political adverts although some of those employees were recently moved to the new transcription team.

The Facebook data-use policy, revised in the past year to make it more understandable for the public, includes no mention of audio. It does, however, say that Facebook will collect ‘content, communications and other information you provide’, when users ‘message or communicate with others.’

Facebook says that its ‘systems automatically process content and communications you and others provide to analyse context and what’s in them’. It includes no mention of other human beings screening the content. In a list of ‘types of third parties we share information with’, Facebook does not mention a transcription team, but vaguely refers to ‘vendors and service providers who support our business’ by ‘analysing how our products are used,’

The role of humans in analysing recordings underscores the limits of artificial intelligence in its ability to recognise words and speech patterns. Machines are getting better at the task but sometimes still struggle with the unfamiliar. That some of the contractors have found the recorded content disturbing is a further reminder of the human toll of moderating content on Facebook, the world’s biggest social network.

Facebook first started allowing Messenger users to have their audio transcribed in 2015. ‘We’re always working on ways to make Messenger more useful’, David Marcus, the executive in charge of the service that time, said in a Facebook post.

It has turned out that Siri, Alexa and whatever it is you call Facebook Messenger have been a little loose-lipped with your conversations. In recent weeks, each of these companies (as well as Google and Microsoft) has been scrutinised for allowing workers to listen to users’ private conversations in order to test their artificial intelligence products for quality. By allowing the world’s most powerful companies to put microphones in our homes to make ordering a pizza more convenient, we have also let them take some of our lives out the door.

The latest of these examples to emerge is from Facebook. Bloomberg reported lately that the company had contracted hundreds of workers to transcribe anonymised voice calls made via Facebook Messenger. The contractors reportedly did not know why they were transcribing people’s private conversations or how the audio was obtained. Facebook says these users opted to have their voice calls transcribed in the app. Still, presumably users assumed this would be done with software on their device, not by people.

‘Much like Apple and Google, we paused human review of audio more than a week ago’, Facebook told Bloomberg, suggesting that it ended the practice in response to the backlash Amazon, Apple, and Google had received after customers learned private conversations recorded on their devices had been sent to human reviewers.

Amazon employed thousands of people to listen to voice recordings from people’s homes, sometimes picking up fights or children in distress. Amazon now allows users to opt out of sending their voice recordings to humans for review. Google and Apple which were also found to have reviewed snippets of users’ private conversations, recorded on smart home speakers, also said earlier this year that they would end the human review of recordings. With Microsoft, the recording and human evesdropping reportedly happened over Skype calls, in which users opted for transcription.

It is still not transparent whether these companies have stopped saving recordings from people’s devices, however. All companies have claimed that the recordings are anonymised although Amazon reportedly sent the recordings to reviewers with the Amazon Echo owners’ first names. In any case, users could still easily be recorded sharing identifying information even if the recording’s labelling is anonymous.

Was all of this really necessary? And is there a better way to improve artificial intelligence software that understands us when we speak? The reason why all these companies were listening to recordings of private conversations is that the artificial intelligence used in their devices simply does not understand everything we say.

That is true that if you have ever used one, since it is not uncommon to bark the same command at a smart speaker multiple times before it registers the request, artificial intelligence might understand what you say, in English, almost a hundred per cent of the time, but that really means one-twentieth of the time, when the machine thinks that it is supposed to be listening and does not understand what is communicated, it needs a little help.

Humans are ‘the cheapest and most possible way to do this’, according to Meredith Whittaker, co-founder and co-director of the non profit AI Now Institute. That is simply due to artificial intelligence systems, which are trained by being told that they got an answer right or wrong, like understanding what someone said correctly. ‘It comes down to the issue of whether there is there an automated system that can be the arbiter of that decision with the accuracy and nuance and cultural context of a human, and right now there isn’t,’ said Whittaker. ‘And so, precarious hidden labour does a lot of heavy lifting for AI.’

However, contractors are not the only way to train a machine to get better at understanding us. There are other less privacy-invasive ways of improving AI’s ability to comprehend human language than human review. ‘Instead of sending out the exact piece for human transcription, you could create a way that has the same kind of noise or other acoustic features and have a human transcribe that so that you’re not divulging anything private of your users,’ said Micha Breakstone, an expert in natural language processing and co-founder of Chorus which builds artificial intelligence for understanding conversations for sales teams.

Breakstone means that a copy of a recording could be made to imitate the same sounds, inflections, and words so that the actual, potentially identifying recording is not being reviewed by strangers. It is also possible to shift the voice or gender of the person talking in the recording to further protect their identity. Still, at the end of the day, the answer is that you do not need to send the materials out to humans, but ‘it’s much, much easier if you do’, Breakstone said.

It is but unlikely that in near future there will ever be an artificially intelligent voice assistant that understands everything humans say — humans do not even understand everything we say. We constantly ask each other to explain or repeat ourselves, and that is a good thing. If we understood everyone in the world perfectly and said everything the same way, the world would be a very boring place. But it also means that the machines we are increasingly inviting to our lives are unlikely to ever fully understand us without the help of other humans, either.

And if we want to invite microphones from Google, Amazon, Facebook, and other companies to our homes that can understand us, we might have to live with the trade-off that our intimate moments may well be harvested, sent to low-paid people doing contract work for review and fed back to improve the products of multibillion-dollar corporations. And we will have to weigh that bargain against whether these voice assistants have really made our lives that much better any way.

The privacy invasion here is not as simple as having another human listen to our conversations although that certainly is jarring. ‘The focus on privacy needs to about how we get in a situation where these devices are littering our homes and public spaces and we’re ultimately contributing extremely sensitive data to corporations whose incentives and motives may be significantly different than ours,’ Whittaker said.

After all, you do not own the recordings of what you say to Amazon, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, or Apple or a company that is more obscure.

Once the backlash dies down, the giant techs (monsters) that we created shall still be perfectly free to do what they want with the apps that now control our lives.


Nazarul Islam is a former educator based in Chicago.

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