Image: Kate Crawford and Vladan Joler

Dismantle an Amazon Echo and you’ll find little more than speakers, microphones, several circuit boards and some fiddly plastic bits. But zoom out — all the way out — and you’ll find something that separates this technology from almost any other.

Why it matters: There’s an odd two-way relationship between Echo owner and Amazon, in which each effectively works for the other — but in the long run, the company comes out ahead.

That’s according to a pair of academic researchers. New York University’s Kate Crawford and University of Novi Sad's Vladan Joler last week published a long essay and schematic centered on the voice assistant.

Like previous technology, they write, the Echo relies on long supply chains through dodgy countries with abusive labor conditions. But the Echo's use of artificial intelligence adds a different twist, since it subsists on huge amounts of personal data: photos, videos, voice, text communication.

  • When consumers use their Echos, they are doing unpaid work for Amazon, because their voice commands and feedback are sent back to its servers to help train its AI.
  • Amazon is able to sell more Echos, and to upgrade them, because of this data sent back by users.
  • This dynamic exists for every system that uses AI algorithms to interact, whether social-media platform or smart speaker. And the biggest winners are the companies.
"In the dynamic of dataset collection through platforms like Facebook, users are feeding and training the neural networks with behavioral data, voice, tagged pictures and videos or medical data. In an era of extractivism, the real value of that data is controlled and exploited by the very few at the top of the pyramid."
— Crawford and Joler

The big picture: Like detectives stringing red yarn between Polaroids, Crawford and Joler draw a line from Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, the richest man on Earth, all the way to the child laborers who extract metals from Congolese mines for his company’s products.

  • It would take one of these children 700,000 years of nonstop work to earn as much as Bezos does in a single day, the authors write.
  • And the materials they mine — after being refined, assembled, shipped and sold — are returned to the Earth once the Echo is used and then thrown out, landfilled or incinerated after valuable materials are stripped out for reuse.
"Put simply: each small moment of convenience — be it answering a question, turning on a light, or playing a song — requires a vast planetary network, fueled by the extraction of non-renewable materials, labor, and data."
— Crawford and Joler

Expect these devices and the assistants they house to keep proliferating. CNBC reported today that Amazon is planning eight new Alexa-powered devices, including a microwave oven.

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