Voice Assistants Very Prone to Accidentally Waking Up and Recording Long Audio Clips: Study

Smart speaker voice assistants are prone to accidental awakening for as long as 43 seconds as many as 19 times a day, according to a study at Northeastern University. The experiment confirms surveys about the issue and why developers are eager to find a solution.

TV Voice Wake Ups

Northeastern’s Mon(IoT)r Research Group carried out the study as part of its broader work on the Internet of Things. Five different smart speakers from different brands were exposed to 125 hours of television from 13 television shows, with each instance of accidental awakening and length of recording marked using a video feed and network traffic monitors to determine when the device awoke and sent a recording to the cloud. The smart speakers included a first-generation Google Home Mini, a first-generation Apple HomePod, a Harman Kardon Invoke, and both the second- and third-generation versions of an Amazon Echo Dot.

The data found that every show woke at least one of the devices at some point. The researchers discarded any times the show actually used the proper wake word, like with a character named Alexa. Nonetheless, almost every show had dialogue that multiple smart speakers construed as a wake word. While about half of the recordings made lasted less than six seconds, the second-generation Echo Dot and the Invoke activated for as long as 43 seconds. The TV shows weren’t equal in their impact either.

Gilmore Girls and The Office were responsible for the majority of activations,” the report said. “These two shows have more dialogue with respect to the others, meaning that the number of activations is at least in part related to the amount of dialogue.”

Survey Results

While the way people talk on TV shows and the sounds from speakers aren’t the same as people talking to each other in real life, the results of the study are similar to what surveys have shown about how easy it is to wake up a voice assistant accidentally. According to a Voicebot study from late 2018, nearly 50% of smart speaker owners said they accidentally woke up their voice assistant at least once a week and 28.5% daily. Smart speaker owners using Amazon Alexa were slightly more likely to accidentally awaken their devices at 34% daily compared to Google Assistant-powered smart speaker owners for 24% daily.

Quiet Privacy Invasion

Mistakenly turning on a voice assistant means it may hear and record sounds that people don’t want to be registered or sent to the cloud. That was a central part of the controversy facing every major voice assistant platform last summer, especially regarding how they use contractors to listen to snippets of audio for quality control and improvement. The platforms have since adjusted how they run their programs and try to keep users informed, but accidental awakenings by definition are hard to account for.

Along with the new system for handling recorded audio, voice assistant developers are bringing new privacy features like commands for checking and deleting voice assistant recordings. Relevant to accidental recordings, Google is developing “hotword sensitivity” as a customizable feature to adjust how easy it is to turn on Google Assistant. The control could reduce how many times the voice assistant is erroneously activated, but it may take more than that and turning off reruns of talk-heavy comedies to end the problem for good.


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