An online community whereanyone who logs in can suggest answers to user-supplied questions posed to the voice-activated Alexa A.I. assistant, Alexa Answers is designed to answer the tough questions that can’t already be answered by the voice-enabled assistant. Once the answers are submitted, they are vetted for accuracy, scored, and if they are good enough, make their way back to Alexa users.
But is crowd sourcing Alexa’s smarts a good idea? From a Microsoft chatbot subverted by racist trolls to Yahoo Answers, a similar service to Alexa Answers that has become notoriously rife with bad information, the past few years have been littered with cases of user-generated data systems gone bad. So it’s not hard to imagine the worst-case scenario: an Alexa-backed smart speaker blithely spouting fake news, dangerous conspiracy theories, or white supremacist talking points. Paid Content Is Your Digital Transformation Data-Powered? From Amazon Web Services
Describing Alexa Answers to Fast Company, Bill Barton, Amazon’s Vice President of Alexa Information, struck an optimistic tone. “We’re leaning into the positive energy and good faith of the contributors,” he said. “And we use machine learning and algorithms to weed out the noisy few, the bad few.”
Experts on data use and its impacts are markedly less cheery.
The race to beat Google
Better assistants and smart speakers drive sales of accessories like voice-activated lights. But Google’s decades in the search business seem to have given it an advantage over Amazon when it comes to understanding queries and returning data. Google’s smart speaker has steadily gained market share against the Echo, and Google Assistant has almost uniformly outperformed Alexa in comparison tests.
Money for nothing, facts for free
As important as Alexa Answers might be for Amazon, contributors won’t get any financial compensation for helping out. The system will have human editors who are presumably paid for their work, but contributed answers will be rewarded only through a system of points and ranks, a practice known in industry parlance as ‘gamification.’
Amazon should pay people to provide answers, whether its one of its own workers or partner with an established fact-checking group.
Gillard believes that relying on a ‘community’ model insulates Amazon if Alexa starts spouting bad or offensive answers, based on crowd input. “I think not paying people lets you say, well, it was sort of the wisdom of the crowd,” he says. “If you pay people, you’re going to be accused of bias.”
The biggest question facing Alexa Answers is whether Amazon can effectively prevent abuse of its new platform. Amazon declined to answer questions from Fortune about the precise role of human editors in the system. But their presence alone represents an acceptance that automated systems in their current state can’t reliably detect offensive content, or evaluate the accuracy of facts.
Not everything has an answer
It’s unclear how Alexa’s overall performance might be impacted by messy or malicious data—those answers are a ways away yet. Bit it’s a wonder if, after all the stumbles of similar systems, Amazon is taking the risks of crowdsourced answers seriously.