RPT-INSIGHT-'Kill your foster parents': Amazon's Alexa talks murder, sex in AI experiment

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    By Jeffrey Dastin
    SAN FRANCISCO, Dec 21 (Reuters) - 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
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         .
    (For a graphic on Amazon's lead in smart speakers, click:
    Over time, Amazon wants to get better at handling complex
customer needs through Alexa, be they home security, shopping or
    "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.
    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.
    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
    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.

 (Reporting By Jeffrey Dastin in San Francisco; Editing by Greg
Mitchell and Marla Dickerson)