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Amazon patent gives Alexa ability to detect illness, ’emotional abnormality’

Oct 15, 20183 mins
Data PrivacyInternet of ThingsPrivacy

Amazon's Alexa may one day detect your real-time status, if you're sick, or if you have an 'emotional abnormality' and target you with ads based on the voice analysis.

lenovo tab 4 alexa mute
Credit: Michael Simon/IDG

“Alexa, (cough) what’s the weather today? (sniffle)”

“The forecast for today is partly cloudy with a high of 56 degrees. By the way, I hear you have a cough. Are you interested in buying cough medicine or learning more?”

That’s a possible scenario if Amazon follows through with its patent granted on Oct. 9, 2018. If that technology is built, there’s no reason for Alexa to stop with your request and also detect abnormal emotion states and serve up ads or other content based on that “emotional abnormality.”

“A cough or sniffle, or crying, may indicate that the user has a specific physical or emotional abnormality,” the patent says. The voice analysis may determine you have multiple emotions or conditions and would then be tagged accordingly to go along with your gender and age. Behavioral targeting criteria could also include your browsing and purchase history.

The patent, filed in March 2017, suggests that “detectable or determinable health conditions may include, among others, default or normal, sore throat, cold, thyroid issues, sleepiness, and other health conditions.” Examples of real-time emotional states which could be determined include “happiness, joy, anger, sorrow, sadness, fear, disgust, boredom, stress, or other emotional states.”

An illustration from the “voice-based determination of physical and emotional characteristics of users” patent explains how Alexa would first receive voice input, then determine if the user has “an abnormal physical or emotion condition” before serving up audio content based “at least in part on the abnormal condition.”

The drawing shows a woman who both coughs and sniffles while telling Alexa she is hungry. After Alexa suggests giving her the recipe for chicken soup and the woman says ‘no,’ Alexa asks if the woman “would like to order cough drops with one-hour delivery.” The woman agrees, and Alexa says she’ll email an order confirmation, adding, “Feel better!” The suggested cough drops could come from the manufacturer who paid to target users who have sore throats.

Another example from Amazon’s patent shows if Alexa determined you are bored, then the voice assistant might reply by asking, “Are you in the mood for a movie?” Asking Alexa to tell you a joke could lead to voice analysis that determines you are both bored and sleepy – something that a musician specifically targeted – and result in an offer to preview and buy the music after Alexa tells you a joke.

With patents, however, keep in mind that being granted one does not necessarily mean Amazon will move ahead and have Alexa analyze your voice to profit from your physical and emotional status.

Alexa and your privacy

By owning an Alexa, did you give up your right to privacy in your home? Put another way, would you automatically be opted into technology that would allow your AI assistant to detect your physical or emotion status and then push ads or whatever other winning auction bid targeted that real-time condition?

Alexa, that’s just creepy. But the voice assistant will tell you “no” if you ask her, “Are you sure you’re not Skynet?”

ms smith

Ms. Smith (not her real name) is a freelance writer and programmer with a special and somewhat personal interest in IT privacy and security issues. She focuses on the unique challenges of maintaining privacy and security, both for individuals and enterprises. She has worked as a journalist and has also penned many technical papers and guides covering various technologies. Smith is herself a self-described privacy and security freak.