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'Frontline' Asks Alexa "Are you listening to us?" on 'Amazon Empire'
February 18, 2020  | By David Hinckley  | 1 comment

At one point in a new documentary on how Amazon came to pervade the planet Earth, an Amazon official assures an interviewer that the Amazon Echo, a.k.a Alexa, doesn't really "listen" to its subscribers.

Alexa "isn't actually a listening device," says David Limp, senior vice president of devices for Amazon. "It's a detector."

That records everything it hears, er, detects.

Exactly how this differs from "listening" is one of several questions that emerge tantalizingly unanswered from Amazon Empire: The Rise and Reign of Jeff Bezos, a PBS Frontline production that airs Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET (check local listings).

Bezos didn't chat with Frontline correspondent James Jacoby for this two-hour program. He allowed a number of top Amazon officials to do so, however, and their responses to Jacoby's pointed but fair questions may reinforce any ambivalence viewers already felt about Amazon.

Frontline doesn't spend a lot of time on how Amazon got to be the 10-ton gorilla of modern consumerism, making Bezos the richest man in the world, because it doesn't have to.

Amazon got to be Amazon by understanding and executing the fundamental principle of sales: customer service.

Starting in 1993 as an Internet bookseller, Amazon offered buyers a huge selection, discount pricing, and ultra-convenience. Order it with a few clicks today, and it shows up in your mailbox by the end of the week. At the latest.

Amazon very quickly got good enough to help put thousands of small stores, and more than a few big stores like Borders, out of business.

Amazon doesn't get full credit for this kill. Shopping patterns have shifted faster than Antarctic icebergs this century, and Amazon Empire doesn't focus on retail carnage.

It cares more about matters like conditions in the Amazon "fulfillment centers," the warehouses where 600,000 workers race to "make rate," that is, meet their quota of packed orders.

Workers and former workers say the pace is grueling enough that safety protocol often must be ignored to get the required amount of work done.

Company officials say that's not true and that, in fact, fulfillment center jobs are coveted. They pay well with good benefits, Amazon says, and workers who take those jobs know the expectations before they sign on.

Amazon Empire also delves into Amazon's high-tech aspirations, like the facial recognition software it sells to police departments and the home security systems it sells through some of those police departments.

Amazon, and police officials, say these devices have solved many crimes. Critics question whether the facial recognition devices, in particular, are accurate enough to prevent misidentifications.

And then there's Alexa, which records what it hears in millions of homes every time the blue light is on.

Limp insists Amazon has no interest in invading anyone's privacy. But Amazon employs thousands of people to sift through some of these recordings, as a way to help gauge what subscribers want from Alexa, and Jacoby presses Limp on whether this at least raises the possibility that personal information could be vulnerable.

Amazon Empire further notes that Bezos's vision for Amazon only begins with personal consumption. The company also develops programs for entities like the CIA, and just this past week won a stay on the government's award of a $10 billion Defense Department technology contract to rival Microsoft.

These and other technology programs increasingly include elements of far-reaching artificial intelligence, and Jacoby acknowledges the concern that we could be headed toward an Orwellian future in which everyone is monitored all the time by unseen technological entities too powerful to challenge.

Amazon Empire doesn't suggest Amazon has become Big Brother. Rather, it notes that Amazon is helping put some potential Big Brother elements in place, and suggests people who love the Amazon shopping experience and their Alexa might want to be aware of that.

Amazon officials don't flat-out deny this. They're more inclined to say the whole world is hurtling toward a hi-tech future with a lot of unknowns, and Amazon is just running with the pack.

Bezos himself, well on his way to conquering Earth, has set his sights on space. We see his presentation of the hi-tech space system Blue Moon. We see his projection for a spaceship that's more like a space city, self-contained to sustain life for more than a million people.

It sounds like sci-fi on steroids. But then, so did today's Amazon when Bezos opened an Internet book-selling operation out of a home office less than 30 years ago.

"Everything big," he says in the documentary's final scene, "started with something small."

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I'm torn between a lot of the good deals on Amazon and the closing
of so many local and major stores caused by Amazon's reach. Pulling
out of the Long Island City, NY deal was the final straw for me. I am no longer
an Amazon Prime customer. True, some local politicians/activists scuttled the deal with some good arguments but the economic impact can not be ignored.
It's a tough situation for many people, shoppers, local merchants, employees.
Feb 19, 2020   |  Reply
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