Amazon Echo in a home

Amazon files patent for 'voice sniffer' algorithm for smart speakers

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The e-commerce giant has developed and filed a patent for technology which could allow its smart speakers to capture details of conversations in order to improve targeted advertising, even when not deliberately activated.

At present, while smart speakers are always ‘listening’ to surrounding conversation, they do not record what they hear unless activated by a trigger word or phrase such as “Echo”, “Alexa” or “Okay, Google”.

However, if Amazon’s ‘voice sniffer algorithms’ are worked into its smart speakers, these speakers could be activated not just by a set trigger word or phrase, but by other possible triggers which indicate users’ interests.

For instance, if a recognised user states that “I love ballet”, or “my husband enjoys sushi”, the smart speaker may record and analyse this data, and use it to personalise advertising. The user may then expect to see adverts, personalised offers and product recommendations relating to ballet and sushi. The data may also be made available to friends and family for gift recommendations, according to the patent.

“A computing device can capture voice content, such as when a user speaks into or near the device,” the patent says.

“One or more sniffer algorithms or processes can attempt to identify trigger words in the voice content, which can indicate a level of interest of the user […] the identified keywords can be stored and/or transmitted to an appropriate location accessible to entities such as advertisers or content providers who can use the keywords to attempt to select or customise content that is likely relevant to the user.”

According to the patent application, both positive and negative triggers can be used to tailor the user’s advertising profile; if a negative trigger word is used, such as “hate”, this will indicate that the user is unlikely to respond well to that subject being advertised.

Amazon has stated that it does not use customers’ voice recordings to target adverts, and that this patent was submitted while the company was “[exploring] the full possibilities of new technology”.

“Patents take multiple years to receive and do not necessarily reflect current developments to products and services,” an Amazon spokesperson told ABC News.

The patent was filed with the US Patent and Trademark Office in November 2017.

In September 2016, Google patented similar technology, which could allow its smart home device to capture images and video from within a user’s home for personalised advertising, for instance, noticing a copy of ‘The Godfather’ in the home and suggesting that the user goes to watch the film at a nearby cinema.

Google, like Amazon, has stated that its smart home devices do not invade user privacy, despite widespread concerns about the impact of smart home devices on privacy.

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