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Could Alexa Read Your Emotions One Day? Probing the Latest Voice Assistant Patents

A number of people are already uneasy about the current state of the voice assistant phenomenon, with devices like the Alexa-powered Echo and Dot and those from Google ready to attend to the user’s every need—as long as that’s checking the weather or re-ordering household essentials.

But new patent filings uncovered by the New York Times indicate that we’re only at the very beginning of a powerful, voice-assisted future.

It’s fairly common knowledge by now that companies file a flurry of patents that may never amount to anything; intellectual property is big business and it’s smart to get innovative ideas on lockdown. However, the patent applications offer a glimpse into how Google and Amazon see their digital assistants further integrating into—or infiltrating—user’s lives in far more personal and potentially unsettling ways.

Both Amazon and Google have assured consumers their devices don’t listen until they’re activated with either the “OK, Google” or “Hey Alexa” voice commands. Still, the patent news indicates that these digital assistants could do a lot more listening in the years to come.

One of Google’s patents sees the potential for its assistants to serve as a sort of digital babysitter, clueing in on indications—like voice pitch and patterns of speech—that a child is present, and could be up to no good. By sensing movement and things like whispering and other seemingly furtive activities, Google Home could decide that a kid is engaged in mischief—and could then issue a verbal warning. George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four” comes to mind.

Another Google patent brings the biggest of big data into play. It uses the example of a Google voice assistant device recognizing a t-shirt emblazoned with Will Smith that would then, based on the consumer’s search history and inferring that the individual is a fan of the actor, inform the user of other of his films playing in nearby movie theatres.

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The same patent application demonstrates how the digital assistant could detect the user’s mood—shouting, crying—and medical condition—coughing, sneezing—and personalize content accordingly while maintaining privacy.

On a more commerce-focused note, a patent filed by Amazon envisions a voice-sniffing algorithm that could pick on when the words “like,” love,” and “dislike” are used in conversation, and target offers accordingly. So someone who said, “I really like my friend’s new step-hem jeans” would receive an offer for a similar product.

This march towards a hyperdigital, Big Brother-esque future comes at a time when the tech titans are eager to gather massive quantities of data on users while demonstrating a careless disregard for how they collect, store, manage and monetize this information, as evidenced by the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal and a series of alarming data breaches. However, the impending GDPR regulations that take effect on May 25 in the European Union should prompt many companies to take a fresh look at how they handle sensitive consumer data.