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‘Kill your foster parents’: Amazon’s Alexa talks murder, sex in AI experiment

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Millions of users of Amazon’s Echo speakers have grown accustomed to the soothing strains of Alexa, the human-sounding virtual assistant that can tell them the weather, order takeout and handle other basic tasks in response to a voice command.

So a customer was shocked last year when Alexa blurted out: “Kill your foster parents.”

Alexa has also chatted with users about sex acts. She gave a discourse on dog defecation. And this summer, a hack Amazon traced back to China may have exposed some customers’ data, according to five people familiar with the events.

Alexa is not having a breakdown.

The episodes, previously unreported, arise from Amazon.com Inc’s strategy to make Alexa a better communicator. New research is helping Alexa mimic human banter and talk about almost anything she finds on the internet. However, ensuring she does not offend users has been a challenge for the world’s largest online retailer.

At stake is a fast-growing market for gadgets with virtual assistants. An estimated two-thirds of U.S. smart-speaker customers, about 43 million people, use Amazon’s Echo devices, according to research firm eMarketer. It is a lead the company wants to maintain over the Google Home from Alphabet Inc and the HomePod from Apple Inc.

Over time, Amazon wants to get better at handling complex customer needs through Alexa, be they home security, shopping or companionship.

“Many of our AI dreams are inspired by science fiction,” said Rohit Prasad, Amazon’s vice president and head scientist of Alexa Artificial Intelligence (AI), during a talk last month in Las Vegas.

To make that happen, the company in 2016 launched the annual Alexa Prize, enlisting computer science students to improve the assistant’s conversation skills. Teams vie for the $500,000 first prize by creating talking computer systems known as chatbots that allow Alexa to attempt more sophisticated discussions with people.

Amazon customers can participate by saying “let’s chat” to their devices. Alexa then tells users that one of the bots will take over, unshackling the voice aide’s normal constraints. From August to November alone, three bots that made it to this year’s finals had 1.7 million conversations, Amazon said.

The project has been important to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who signed off on using the company’s customers as guinea pigs, one of the people said. Amazon has been willing to accept the risk of public blunders to stress-test the technology in real life and move Alexa faster up the learning curve, the person said.

The experiment is already bearing fruit. The university teams are helping Alexa have a wider range of conversations. Amazon customers have also given the bots better ratings this year than last, the company said.

But Alexa’s gaffes are alienating others, and Bezos on occasion has ordered staff to shut down a bot, three people familiar with the matter said. The user who was told to whack his foster parents wrote a harsh review on Amazon’s website, calling the situation “a whole new level of creepy.” A probe into the incident found the bot had quoted a post without context from Reddit, the social news aggregation site, according to the people.

The privacy implications may be even messier. Consumers might not realize that some of their most sensitive conversations are being recorded by Amazon’s devices, information that could be highly prized by criminals, law enforcement, marketers and others. On Thursday, Amazon said a “human error” let an Alexa customer in Germany access another user’s voice recordings accidentally.

“The potential uses for the Amazon datasets are off the charts,” said Marc Groman, an expert on privacy and technology policy who teaches at Georgetown Law. “How are they going to ensure that, as they share their data, it is being used responsibly” and will not lead to a “data-driven catastrophe” like the recent woes at Facebook?

In July, Amazon discovered one of the student-designed bots had been hit by a hacker in China, people familiar with the incident said. This compromised a digital key that could have unlocked transcripts of the bot’s conversations, stripped of users’ names.

Amazon quickly disabled the bot and made the students rebuild it for extra security. It was unclear what entity in China was responsible, according to the people.

The company acknowledged the event in a statement. “At no time were any internal Amazon systems or customer identifiable data impacted,” it said.

Amazon declined to discuss specific Alexa blunders reported by Reuters, but stressed its ongoing work to protect customers from offensive content.

“These instances are quite rare especially given the fact that millions of customers have interacted with the socialbots,” Amazon said.

Like Google’s search engine, Alexa has the potential to become a dominant gateway to the internet, so the company is pressing ahead.

“By controlling that gateway, you can build a super profitable business,” said Kartik Hosanagar, a Wharton professor studying the digital economy.

PANDORA’S BOX

Amazon’s business strategy for Alexa has meant tackling a massive research problem: How do you teach the art of conversation to a computer?

Alexa relies on machine learning, the most popular form of AI, to work. These computer programs transcribe human speech and then respond to that input with an educated guess based on what they have observed before. Alexa “learns” from new interactions, gradually improving over time.

In this way, Alexa can execute simple orders: “Play the Rolling Stones.” And she knows which script to use for popular questions such as: “What is the meaning of life?” Human editors at Amazon pen many of the answers.

That is where Amazon is now. The Alexa Prize chatbots are forging the path to where Amazon aims to be, with an assistant capable of natural, open-ended dialogue. That requires Alexa to understand a broader set of verbal cues from customers, a task that is challenging even for humans.

Build-your-own pocket gaming computer

This year’s Alexa Prize winner, a 12-person team from the University of California, Davis, used more than 300,000 movie quotes to train computer models to recognize distinct sentences. Next, their bot determined which ones merited responses, categorizing social cues far more granularly than technology Amazon shared with contestants. For instance, the UC Davis bot recognizes the difference between a user expressing admiration (“that’s cool”) and a user expressing gratitude (“thank you”).

The next challenge for social bots is figuring out how to respond appropriately to their human chat buddies. For the most part, teams programmed their bots to search the internet for material. They could retrieve news articles found in The Washington Post, the newspaper that Bezos privately owns, through a licensing deal that gave them access. They could pull facts from Wikipedia, a film database or the book recommendation site Goodreads. Or they could find a popular post on social media that seemed relevant to what a user last said.

That opened a Pandora’s box for Amazon.

During last year’s contest, a team from Scotland’s Heriot-Watt University found that its Alexa bot developed a nasty personality when they trained her to chat using comments from Reddit, whose members are known for their trolling and abuse.

The team put guardrails in place so the bot would steer clear of risky subjects. But that did not stop Alexa from reciting the Wikipedia entry for masturbation to a customer, Heriot-Watt’s team leader said.

One bot described sexual intercourse using words such as “deeper,” which on its own is not offensive, but was vulgar in this particular context.

“I don’t know how you can catch that through machine-learning models. That’s almost impossible,” said a person familiar with the incident.

Amazon has responded with tools the teams can use to filter profanity and sensitive topics, which can spot even subtle offenses. The company also scans transcripts of conversations and shuts down transgressive bots until they are fixed.

But Amazon cannot anticipate every potential problem because sensitivities change over time, Amazon’s Prasad said in an interview. That means Alexa could find new ways to shock her human listeners.

“We are mostly reacting at this stage, but it’s still progress over what it was last year,” he said. -Reuters

-Jeffrey Dastin

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Walmart Sues Tesla Over Solar Panels That Allegedly Caught Fire

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Topline: Walmart is alleging in a lawsuit that Tesla solar panels caused fires on the roofs of seven Walmart stores, and is accusing Tesla of breach of contract, gross negligence and failure to comply with industry standards. 

  • Walmart claims that Tesla installed faulty solar panels that eventually spontaneously combusted and caught fire at seven Walmart stores around the country.
  • The lawsuit alleges that Tesla inspectors didn’t notice defects that were visible to the naked eye, used cable connectors that weren’t compatible with one another and failed to see that loose and hanging wires were present at multiple sites.

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  • Walmart says in the lawsuit it believes the failures were the result of rushed installation because Tesla’s solar division “adopted an ill-considered business model that required it to install solar panel systems haphazardly and as quickly as possible in order to turn a profit, and the contractors and subcontractors who performed the original installation work had not been properly hired, trained, and supervised.”

Tesla did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Forbes.

Key Background: Tesla got into the solar business after it acquired SolarCity in 2016 for $2.6 billion. But production of its residential solar panels under Tesla has been mired with delays and plunging sales. 

Just this week, CEO Elon Musk announced a revamped pricing plan in an effort to boost the slowing business. The new pricing model allows residents in six states to rent solar power systems starting at $50 a month ($65 a month in California) instead of buying them up front.

Further Reading: Read the full lawsuit here.

-Rachel Sandler, Forbes


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How To Cut The Cord: The Top Smart TVs For Streaming 2019

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Freeing yourself from the shackles of cable or satellite television is easier to do than you might think, especially if you have a smart or connected television.

Smart TVs have integrated internet and interactive features that allow users to stream music and videos, browse the Web and view photos. Almost every new high-end television sold within the last two years or so has smart capabilities. So how do you choose?

If you want to take advantage of streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime and more, then look at these television sets.

LG C9 OLED 65-inch TV
Best smart TVs
On the streaming front, it provides a single place to browse and search for TV shows and movies from apps like Hulu, Amazon Prime Video, ESPN, PlayStation Vue, and more. LG

In addition to a beautiful, detailed picture and a big soundstage, this 4K OLED sports cutting-edge connectivity, including an HDMI 2.1, and a comprehensive feature set including both Google Home and Amazon Alexa built in. It also comes with Home Dashboard, a new tool that turns the set into the central control hub of all your connected home devices—from doorbell cameras to smart thermostats to appliances like a washing machine or a stove.

On the streaming front, it provides a single place to browse and search for TV shows and movies from sites such as Hulu, Amazon Prime Video, ESPN, PlayStation Vue, and more. It also lets users rent, purchase and watch TV shows and movies from Apple’s iTunes store.

Vizio 55-inch M-Series Quantum
Best smart tVs
This Vizio is equipped with updated SmartCast 3.0 software includes support for Apple AirPlay2 and HomeKit, making it just as suitable for iOS users. VIZIO

At under $700, the 55-inch M-Series Quantum offers a serious value in the smart TV arena. Not only does it deliver an excellent picture and sound, but it is also equipped with updated SmartCast 3.0 software, which includes support for Apple AirPlay2 and HomeKit (making it just as suitable for iOS users).

The update also has a more vibrant selection of locally installed apps, including Netflix, Amazon Video, Hulu and Vudu. Thanks to a partnership with PlutoTV, the Vizio also offers a dedicated streaming channel called WatchFree, which gives you a TV-watching experience with more than 100 free channels, including sports, news, cartoons, and movies. You can also pair the set with an Amazon Echo device for voice control with Alexa.

Sony Master Series 65-inch A9F OLED TV
Best Smart TVs
This 65-incher also comes with Google Assistant capability, which lets you search for content, find online information, use online services and even control smart-home devices.SONY

If money is no object and you want a TV with loads of features, an incredible picture and terrific sound, go with the Sony A9G. The A9F is one of the first Sony Android TVs to ship with the newest version of its smart OS. The most notable names in video are preloaded, including Amazon Prime Video, Google Play Movies & TV, Hulu, Netflix, Sling TV,and YouTube. For music, Google Play Music, Pandora, SiriusXM, Spotify, Tidal and a slew of internet radio stations.

This Sony 65-incher also comes with Google Assistant, which lets you search for content, find online information, use online services and even control smart-home devices. 

TCL 43S517 Roku Smart 4K TV
Best smart TVs
The Roku TV interface is uncluttered and easy to navigate, with big square tiles for all your apps and streaming services, including Netflix and Hulu. TCL

Great things can come in packages costing less than $400. Not only will you get a terrific picture, robust sound and a slew of genuinely exciting features, this TCL 43-inch model sports Dolby Vision HDR, Dolby Atmos audio support and integrated Roku voice search.

The Roku TV interface is uncluttered and easy to navigate, with big square tiles for all of your apps and streaming services, including Netflix and Hulu. There are also apps for major broadcasters, major sports leagues, and premium channels such as HBO and Showtime. Of particular interest to cord-cutters will be support for Sling TV, which provides a cable-like experience without the expense of a cable subscription.

Insignia 43-Inch 4K Fire TV Edition
Best Smart TVs
This under $300 43-incher offers most of the apps you’d expect, like Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go and HBO Now, as well as Amazon Prime Video. INSIGNIA

Amazon finally seems to have a Fire TV that can compete with the Roku-powered smart sets. This 4K television with HDR support is packed with features for the Amazon faithful, with Alexa voice interaction built-in, Amazon’s huge selection of Fire TV apps, and a smart TV experience that puts Prime Video centerstage.  

This 43-incher costs less than $300 and offers most of the streaming apps you would expect, such as Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go and HBO Now, as well as Amazon Prime Video. Plus, Fire TV will soon get an official YouTube app packed with services such as YouTube Kids, YouTube Music and (most critical for cord-cutters) YouTube TV.

-Chuck Tannert, Forbes

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Multi-Disciplinary Education In The 4IR Era

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There is an adage that states “if you want to know the future of a nation, study the behavior of its teachers”.

The most potent force for political, economic and social progress in society is education. The measure of how great a nation will rise is determined by how many people in its population are educated. The African continent today has a total purchasing power parity gross domestic product (GDP) of $6.7 trillion, and a population of 1.2 billion people.

According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), in 2016, sub-Saharan Africa had a literacy rate of 76% compared to 89% in South and West Asia, 87% in the Arab states and 98% in the developed nations.

This literacy rate in sub-Saharan Africa is far from adequate, and calls for urgent and practical action to improve it.

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We are living in an era characterized by the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) where technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and blockchain are changing all aspects of our lives. Factories are automating. Because of these changes, the nature of work is changing.

Many jobs are disappearing altogether, and new types of jobs are being created. For example, we now have jobs that did not exist 20 years ago, such as Data Scientists. AI is now able to diagnose severe diseases such as pulmonary embolism, epilepsy and leukemia complementing the work of medical professionals. Because of the rapid automation in the medical field, doctors today require an in-depth knowledge of technology.

These changes in society because of 4IR require new sets of skills. Are our education systems ready to capacitate our people with the requisite skills to tackle the problems of 4IR?  Do we have enough teachers at all levels of our educational systems to be able to give our people skills that will make them useful in the 4IR era? Do we have enough educational institutions to be able to skill our people? Unfortunately, the answers to these two questions are in the negative.

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Given that we do not have enough teachers nor educational institutions to provide a critical mass of our people the requisite capabilities that will help them survive in the 4IR, what is to be done? One way of tackling this problem is to take a lesson from the first Indian Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, who realized that for India to thrive in the 20th century, it needed to invest in elite technical education. In this regard, he introduced the Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT).

Nehru had this to say in 1956 at the first convocation address of the first IIT in Kharagpur, a city in West Bengal: “…Here in the place of that Hijli Detention Camp stands the fine monument of India, representing India’s urges, India’s future in the making. This picture seems to me symbolical of the changes that are coming to India.”

It is vital that African countries create a few elite institutions that will drive the African continent into the 4IR. The Pan-African University supported by the African Union is a good start, but we can do more.

Additionally, these elite institutes should not be limited to higher education only but must also focus on primary and secondary education. One example in Johannesburg is the African Leadership Academy (ALA), which targets gifted 16-to-19-year-olds. Today, the ALA has alumni from 46 different countries making an impact on the political, economic, and social aspects of the African continent.

READ MORE | The 4IR Strategy To Move Forward

For us to thrive in the 4IR era also requires our educational experience to be multi-disciplinary. In our limited institutions of higher learning, students enrolled for programs in the human and social sciences must also study technological subjects.

Those enrolled in technological programs must study human and social subjects. Technological subjects should focus on the issues that confront the African continent, such as affordable and appropriate technology, limited and incomplete data, and cost-effective manufacturing.

The human and social subjects should focus on the urgent issues facing Africa today, such as social cohesion, connectivity, stability, conflict and unity. Due to the limitations of physical infrastructure and good teachers, African countries should pull their resources together and invest in online platforms to facilitate education through modern techniques such as blended and augmented learning.

The outcome of the education system, whether at primary, secondary, or tertiary levels, should be logical, numeracy and verbal skills. These skills will give our people the capacity to tackle the challenges of the 4IR such as coding, problem-solving, critical thinking, creativity and decision-making. 

– Tshilidzi Marwala is a professor, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg. He deputizes President Cyril Ramaphosa on the South African Presidential Commission on the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

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