Alexa ‘Voice ID’ May Detect Unique Users

As handy as it is, Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant (the “brain” in its Echo device lineup) is limited. Luckily, one of its largest drawbacks may soon vanish, as the company is rumored to have a new ‘Voice ID’ feature coming.

According to Time, Alexa’s Voice ID will allow it to decipher different voices on the fly. Currently, it acknowledges the trigger phrase ‘Alexa,’ but the system doesn’t always activate in response. One reason Alexa fails is its high dependence on recognizing specific cadence, tone and inflection; my voice may activate an Echo in my home, but yours might not.

That recognition may not even happen for everyone living together under one roof, including children. Alexa learns over time, but it’s a linear path, and multiple voices only muddle the situation. Users can switch accounts, but that’s not ideal for a device meant to sit idly until needed.

Voice ID will add different lanes for specific users without the need for account switching. Instead, it just learns different voices and assigns them an identity, possibly via an Amazon profile. The technology has allegedly been around since 2015, and is ready to launch:

Amazon has been developing this capability… since at least the summer of 2015. It remained on the Alexa roadmap as recently as late last summer, but it’s unclear when or if the feature will launch. The underlying technology has been completed; it’s just a matter of integrating the feature into Echo products, one of the sources claimed.

One reason Amazon is said to be squatting on the feature is privacy. A recent murder case in Arkansas may be the precursor to Amazon holding Voice ID back, as it finds itself fighting for the security of data collected by voice-controlled digital assistants.

Similarly, there’s the case of a little girl buying toys via an Echo without her parents’ permission. Great for her, bad for mom and dad’s credit card balance. The parents weren’t even aware of her issue until the toys (and cookies!) arrived at the front door.

Amazon Echo

Alexa Voice ID Has Huge Implications

There’s no reason to think Amazon won’t eventually ship Voice ID. It’s easily a distinguishing factor for the digital home hub, which now faces stiff competition from Google Home. It’s also something that would make Alexa a true concierge rather than an interface.

But that will come with heavy considerations. Privacy is obviously something to think about, both legally and otherwise. Should an inquisitive teen’s possibly-embarrassing voice queries be searchable by their parent(s)? Does Amazon bear a responsibility to notify parents or guardians if a teen asks dangerous questions, like how to harm themselves?

There are other issues, like who should be able to buy from Amazon through a particular Echo – and will owners be able to limit the amount they can spend? Dollhouses and cookies are great, but not every day. We got a glimpse of how much the freewheeling whims of children can cost with the App Store and Google Play, which added parental controls after kids spent tons on in-game features without adult approval.

Voice ID is said to have a ‘voice print’ feature for users that will allow some measure of control. It’s what will identify individual voices, and Amazon is said to be using it to control who can purchase from Amazon, but that sounds like its sole purpose.

If Amazon has a way for Alexa to distinguish voices, it has to make it easy and intuitive for owners to manage profiles and settings for those people the system recognizes. You may have no issue with a significant other buying things for the home, but you might not want an impulse buy landing on your credit card.

Existing parental controls may also be under review. Kindle tablets have a ‘FreeTime’ feature that allows parents granular control over how much tablet time their kids spend, which seems appropriate for Alexa, as well. Rather than answer questions or activate features, Alexa may say: “Don’t worry about the Mets game; do your homework.”

Voice ID suggests that Amazon wants you to have an Echo in every room of your house. If it’s meant as a means to identify and assist unique users, that’s most helpful in our private spaces. Voice ID can logically be used on any supported device, but it’s most helpful to angsty teens in their room (doing their homework, not watching the Mets game). There are 10,000-plus Echo ‘skills’ to consider, which adds unending complexity to Voice ID’s privacy and account-management considerations. Conceptually, that support will all happen on Amazon’s end (likely something along the lines of “Should user(x) have access to Uber?” in a Control Center) without affecting Alexa’s developer tools much, if at all.

Amazon’s move may herald the next wave of voice assistance. Once Alexa can recognize individual users, it’s possible we’ll see unique digital assistants come to the fore. Alexa may tell me “I’m sorry, Nate. I’m afraid I can’t do that,” but say something less nerdy to someone else – even if we ask the same question.

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