Most of us are comfortable using digital assistants to ask about the weather, or the traffic on the way to work, or just how many years it’s been since our favourite sports team actually won anything—but what’s happening to all of our voice commands and queries? And just how many human beings are listening in to them? Here’s how to see what’s on file, and how to delete it.
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Over the past few months, a waterfall of details about how companies handle voice recordings has poured into the news. First, there was news that Amazon hired thousands of contractors to review Alexa commands. Apple and Google were doing the same thing with their voice assistants. Then, more recently, we learned that Facebook and Microsoft had humans transcribing their users’ messages and phone calls. All of this has been a real nightmare for people who care about their privacy.
At this point, if you don’t want strangers to listen to recordings from your devices, it’s looking like you may just have to go off the grid. On Thursday, Microsoft became the latest tech giant to admit it uses human contractors to review its users’ audio. So in case you’ve lost track by now, that list also includes Apple, Amazon, Facebook, and Google.
Microsoft’s Cortana assistant is reportedly becoming more of an assistance aide than a standalone service, being moved from Microsoft’s AI + Research department to its Experiences & Devices Team and working with Amazon to pair it with the latter company’s Alexa technology.
Now, per Engadget, Microsoft seems to be encouraging customers to just buy Alexa-powered tech like the recently released Echo Dot and regular Echo and use Cortana through it.
I’ll say one thing about the new Microsoft Surface Headphones. They’re pretty, especially if you like the colour grey. I’ll tell you a few other things. The Cortana features are frustrating. The noise-cancelling tech is basically fine. The ear cups aren’t super comfortable. And the headphones just don’t sound that amazing. They’re a good fashion statement. “Look at me,” these branded cans scream, “I’m a loyal Microsoft user.”
The next VP to leave Microsoft is the current head of Cortana, Javier Soltero, according to multiple reports. The departure is part of an ongoing internal shakeup at Microsoft that has seen execs including 20-year vet Terry Myerson leave the company.
Cortana, like all digital assistants, is supposed to make life easier by organising your data and presenting you with helpful information when you need it. Unfortunately, that inclination to be useful can also pose a security risk, as McAfee found when it discovered a bug in Windows 10 that let hackers use Cortana to gain access to locked computers.
At Google I/O 2018, Google announced that its digital assistant was getting upgraded with more natural-sounding speech in addition to six new alternate voices. Then, Google promptly scared the hell out of everyone by using the Google Assistant's new skills to mimic a real voice so well, people on the other end of a phone call apparently didn't know they were speaking to a robot.
Despite its best efforts, Microsoft's Groove Music service never really caught on. So back in October, Microsoft shut the service down and told its users to switch to Spotify. Unfortunately, that decision had some unintended consequences for Microsoft's digital assistant Cortana, which relied on Groove Music's library to help people identify songs.
Yesterday, a report from Bloomberg came out saying that Samsung will launch a Bixby-powered smart speaker sometime in the first half of 2018. This really shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone since DJ Koh already told CNBC back in August that the company was indeed trying to put its digital assistant, which first debuted on the Galaxy S8, into a smart speaker.
As Google and Apple (and Samsung) scramble to build the smartest, do-anything personal assistant for your phone, Amazon and Microsoft have elected to take a different route: They're working together rather than competing. The news arrived in the form of a joint announcement from both companies, and the New York Times is reporting that Amazon and Microsoft have spent the last year integrating Cortana into the Alexa ecosystem and vice versa.
The future of city driving -- at least in theory -- sounds amazing. We'll have digital assistants in our vehicles to book last-minute restaurant reservations, and we'll never have to touch a steering wheel again because our cars will drive themselves. At CES, I got a glimpse of how this technology is coming along, and though it was in the context of a carefully designed demo rather than a real-life experience on the city streets, I walked away thinking that a driverless society is a long, long time away.