Crowdsourcing the content that powers your platform can be wildly successful. See the likes of Wikipedia and YouTube. Crowdsourcing the content that powers your platform can be hugely problematic. Again, see Wikipedia and YouTube. Ultimately, crowdsourcing content only works if, above all else, you spend the resources to ensure quality. Amazon clearly isn’t doing that with Alexa Answers, as our story today analyzing its user submission problems elaborates.
It’s one thing to take unanswered questions from a virtual assistant and stick them on a forum for users to submit answers. It’s a completely different thing to have your virtual assistant recite those question-and-answer pairs with just a prepended “According to an Amazon customer” disclaimer. The result is Alexa spitting out untrue, sponsored, and offensive questions and answers.
Amazon famously doesn’t detail sales numbers for its Alexa-powered Echo devices. But this is bigger than just Echo. This affects all devices with Alexa — and Amazon has shared that there are over 100 million Alexa-enabled devices that have been sold as of January 2019.
I can sit here all day giving you examples of questionable questions and asinine answers that Alexa can now say, but you should just try it yourself. Find a question with an answer on Alexa Answers and see if your Alexa device recites it back to you. (If you don’t have a device with Alexa built-in, you can download the Alexa app for Android, iOS, or Windows.)
At the very least, I expect Amazon will eventually clean up Alexa Answers. But I also think the company needs to re-examine the process it uses for accepting questions on Alexa Answers and for what it takes for an answer to go “live.” Every time I check the site, I’m a little less surprised when I find a clearly wrong question and answer pair. But I’m still just as surprised when I pose the question to Alexa and she simply spits out the answer verbatim.
Amazon might see Alexa Answers as an experiment, but the company needs to realize that it’s playing with fire. Before making any changes, the company should decide Alexa Answers’ purpose. If Alexa Answers is meant for entertainment, that’s fine — but users need to be aware of that, and the disclaimer needs to say as much. If Alexa Answers is meant to inform, Amazon needs to completely rethink what questions and answers are allowed in.
And if Amazon can’t decide what Alexa Answers is meant to do, it will quickly become a cesspool with questions and answers offering different “opinions.” And then nobody wins. Well, maybe Google Assistant.
ProBeat is a column in which Emil rants about whatever crosses him that week.