Students and faculty express privacy concerns over new voice technology

Emerson Launch unveiled its first voice assistant, Em, and a study app called Voicelet, both available via Amazon voice-enabled technologies, on March 21.

As the new programs launch, administrators are discussing how to incorporate Amazon Echo Dots, a voice-controlled device, on the Boston campus to promote Em and Voicelet. Some faculty members and students feel concerned about the voice assistants potentially invading their privacy. At this moment, the college has not installed Echo Dots around the campus.

Voicelet mirrors Quizlet, a website designed to help students learn material through games and virtual flashcards, except the program works with voice-enabled technology, and currently only contains study material for program developer Assistant Professor Maria Scott’s Intro to Public Relations class.

Emerson was the only non-engineering school to receive a fellowship from Amazon last August, alongside nine other colleges across the country. Amazon granted Emerson the Echo Dots on campus, Dean of the School of Communication Raul Reis said in an interview. Sanjay Pothen, director of Emerson Launch, could not provide any specific details about the grant.

Emerson administrators have discussed using the Echo Dots in public areas on campus, including the Visitor Center, WERS, the Dining Center, and common rooms.

Russell Newman, assistant professor in the Interdisciplinary Studies Department, said in an interview that the problem of potential privacy invasion was not due to the voice technology, but the tech giants that profit off of accumulating profiles on its users.

“This isn’t a technological problem; this is a social one that requires social solutions, like new regulations and new policies,” Newman said.

Reis said Emerson Launch staff members talked with different departments about their interest in acquiring Voicelet and developing other functions with voice technology. Newman and several other faculty members created a committee in late March to begin developing guidelines on how to interact with the Echo Dots in a safe way to protect privacy.

Emerson will not install any Echo Dots on campus until they receive further results from Emerson Launch and the faculty committee releases the guidelines, Reis said.

Ian Mandt, executive treasurer of the Student Government Association, said in an interview that he and a small group of SGA members talked to Pothen this semester about protecting students’ private information if the Echo Dots are installed around the campus.

“We wanted it to be pushed back more long term,” Mandt said. “I think before these devices can be placed, the issues of privacy have to be addressed.”

Scott said she believes the Echo Dots do not pose much of a danger in leaking personal information. She said she tested how much the Echo Dots could hear by speaking out loud about three subjects to the Dots in her home for a whole day. She found that no advertisements regarding the three subjects she talked about appeared on her phone. When she tried the same experiment on her phone, relevant ads appeared.

“I was relatively convinced that this [Dot] listens to me far less than the iPhone,” Scott said.

Students can access Em either by using an Echo Dot or through the Amazon Alexa phone application. Em and Voicelet are “skills” on voice-controlled devices, and they function like the apps on a phone, Pothen said. Em can provide information about on-campus activities, office addresses, sporting event schedules, the academic calendar,  and play the college’s radio station WERS, Pothen said. Users can ask questions after activating Em by saying “Alexa, launch Em.”

Pothen had groups of Emerson students come up with 150 frequently asked questions about Emerson in the fall 2018 semester. Emerson Launch coded the answers into Alexa and the students gave the voice assistant a gender neutral name—Em.

While Emerson Launch provides technical help, Scott and public relations graduate student Frida Rostoker work on the content for Scott’s Intro to Public Relations class.  They test the accuracy of the Dots and how much the content in Voicelet helps students study by gathering feedback from the 25 students in Scott’s class.

Scott said in an interview that students can practice true or false and multiple choice questions on Voicelet when studying. It also has flash card mode, which Scott designed to help students learn key words and definitions from their textbook.

Voicelet also works with multiple users. After recording every player’s name, Alexa asks each player a question. Voicelet removes each student that answers three questions wrong. Each Voicelet folder can contain 15 to 25 questions, Scott said.

Scott started using Voicelet in her classroom this semester with her 25 students. She said about half of them said Voicelet helped them study better. Scott plans to continue using Voicelet in the next academic year, when she anticipates having about 50 students in two different sections of the course. She said she hopes to use this larger sample size to update Voicelet and maximize its effectiveness.

Scott and Rostoker also hope to establish a structure for professors who wish to use Voicelet for their own classes and course material.

“What we would give them is a spreadsheet that basically has all these different tabs … and then they just have to literally fill in the blanks,” Scott said.

Reis said Emerson’s history as a school of oratory fits well with voice technology.

“We want to be able to give skills to the students if we think something is going to become very prominent, and want to be able to leverage the history that we have with voice,” Reis said.

Reis also said he thinks Emerson could lead the discussion on voice technology and the related ethical and human interaction issues, such as paraphrasing information too complicated for the technology to process.

“We don’t want this to be all technical discussions with computer science; we want this to be human discussions, too,” Reis said.

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