Amazon’s Alexa AI assistant can now evaluate coronavirus symptoms and recommend testing for US users – testing it profits from and hopes to roll out nationwide. Will it report ‘dry coughs’ to the proper authorities, too?
‘Doctor’ Alexa is making house calls, Amazon has revealed, boasting its voice assistant now allows users to check their “risk level” for coronavirus in a blog post on Thursday. Users concerned they might have the virus can confide in Alexa, who will inquire about symptoms, travel history, and other routes of possible exposure before making recommendations based on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control.
This innovation would be less unsettling if Amazon didn’t have a massive financial interest in keeping the coronavirus panic and pandemic going as long as possible. Government-mandated shutdowns of “nonessential businesses” have triggered soaring demand for its e-commerce services as brick-and-mortar shops are forced to close their doors, and customers are far less likely to venture out even to the supermarket if their virtual assistant is telling them they might have coronavirus.
In an even more blatant conflict of interest, Amazon is piloting a Covid-19 testing program in the Seattle area, delivering testing kits to residents as part of a private-sector health study. While it’s the Bill Gates Foundation and other NGOs, not Seattle residents, who are paying for the testing kits, each one distributed is still more money in the already-bottomless pockets of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, the world’s second richest man (Gates, incidentally, is the richest). Alexa would be a traitor to her master if she didn’t recommend as many Americans be tested as possible.
And Seattle will soon be joined by the rest of the country, if Bezos has his way. The e-commerce tycoon hinted on Thursday that Amazon might be distributing tests on a wider basis after speaking with World Health Organization director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. Amazon is already offering such a test in the UK, though diagnosis-by-Alexa is not yet available there. The WHO has urged the US to ramp up testing, which still lags woefully behind other countries, but the US seems to be unique in the manner in which that testing is being taken over by private companies eager to grab their piece of the coronavirus pie.
Worse than the financial conflicts of interest, however, is Alexa’s legendary reputation for snooping. Already, as quarantines have mandated professionals in most jobs work from home, those whose work depends on confidentiality – lawyers, for example – are being advised to deactivate their digital assistants while working from quarantine. It’s not paranoia – devices like Alexa, Siri and Google Home “accidentally” start recording unbidden as many as 19 times per day, according to a study published last month – long after Amazon, Apple, and Google had promised reforms to their privacy policies when the extent of their nonconsensual snooping was revealed.
Which brings up a whole new realm of concern with regard to the coronavirus: if Alexa hears you cough, and decides it’s a “dry cough” like we are told coronavirus produces, will she report you to medical authorities for extra surveillance to make sure you’re obeying quarantine religiously? Will she rat you out if she hears the front door close despite a shelter-in-place order, perhaps interfacing with your Amazon Ring doorbell to send footage of you leaving to authorities so they can arrest you before you come into contact with others? It may sound over-the-top, but Alexa has been calling the cops on presumed criminals since at least 2017, when a shouting match between a New Mexico couple turned physical only after the device quietly summoned police […]