Ruthy Hope Slatis couldn’t believe what she was hearing. She’d been hired by a temp agency outside Boston for a vague job: transcribing audio files for Amazon.com Inc. For $12 an hour, she and her fellow contractors, or “data associates,” listened to snippets of random conversations and jotted down every word on their laptops. Amazon would only say the work was critical to a top-secret speech-recognition product. The clips included recordings of intimate moments inside people’s homes.
This was in fall 2014, right around the time Amazon unveiled the Echo speaker featuring Alexa, its voice-activated virtual-assistant software. Amazon pitched Alexa as a miracle of artificial intelligence in its first Echo ad, in which a family asked for and received news updates, answers to trivia questions, and help with the kids’ homework. But Slatis soon began to grasp the extent to which humans were behind the robotic magic she saw in the commercial. “Oh my God, that’s what I’m working on,” she remembers thinking. Amazon was capturing every voice command in the cloud and relying on data associates like her to train the system. Slatis first figured she’d been listening to paid testers who’d volunteered their vocal patterns in exchange for a few bucks. She realized that couldn’t be.