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The risk for Amazon of relying on AI to decide someone's mood

Amazon's new wearable wants to check users' body fat and "tone" with AI, which historically struggles with women and people of color.

The risk for Amazon of relying on AI to decide someone's mood

Amazon's new Halo app and wearable.

Photo: Amazon

On the surface, Amazon's new Halo wearable seems like a pretty straightforward offering, on par with Apple's offerings and Google's Fitbit. The water resistant wearable band tracks your activity and sleep quality, but the app also has a few features that go well beyond what competitors offer. Unlike the next Apple Watch or the newest Fitbit, they could have potentially damaging ramifications if rolled out improperly.

The wearable will track what it calls your "tone," listening to how you sound when you speak all day, as well as giving you suggestions on how to improve your tone. "For example, tone results may reveal that a difficult work call leads to less positivity in communication with a customer's family, an indication of the impact of stress on emotional well-being," the company said in a release.

This tweet from Ali Alkhatib, a research fellow at the Center for Applied Data Ethics, had me thinking about Amazon's past history with automated systems. Earlier this year, Amazon announced a one-year pause on allowing its facial-recognition software to be used by police. That same software in the past incorrectly matched 28 U.S. congresspeople with mugshots, and the ACLU found "the false matches were disproportionately of people of color." Amazon's Ring video doorbells have reportedly been accessed by the company's developers in the past. Ring has partnered with over 600 police forces across the U.S., having made a concerted effort to woo them into selling these cameras to their local communities.

Are we on the precipice of people being convicted of crimes on the basis of AI data that shows they had an aggressive tone? Or worse, should cops think to use deadly force in the heat of the moment when confronting yet another young Black man?

Let's step back and look at the new types of data that Amazon's Halo is collecting. The first measurement looks at body fat: The app uses your phone's depth-sensor cameras and machine-learning algorithms to build a 3D model of your body, which is uploaded to the cloud, processed (and then deleted, Amazon says), and used to determine what percentage of your body is fat. Amazon says it's as accurate as any measurement a doctor could make. The app can even show what your body might look like if you gain or lose weight.

The second, which is definitely the riskier of the two, is a measurement of the wearer's "tone." The wearable, much like an Amazon Echo, is apparently listening to what you say and how you say it over the course of a day. Amazon says its "AI analyzes qualities of the customer's voice such as pitch, intensity, tempo, and rhythm to predict how others would perceive and describe the customer's tone of voice." It then categorizes those tones with labels like "happy," "confused," or "worried," and gives you suggestions on how you can improve your interactions. It's like an overbearing parent telling their child that they don't like their tone. The Halo cannot, as of yet, put you into time out.

These are complex systems that would require diverse datasets to be able to pull off things like this with any level of accuracy. If Amazon relied on data that only used male bodies for the body-fat algorithms, or white voices for the tone system, it's likely the software would not work as well for everyone. Bias creeps into AI when datasets, and unwitting researchers, do not have a holistic, diverse representation of the general population. An Amazon spokesperson told Protocol that both features were "trained on a large amount of data across demographics," from both internal and publicly available sources.

People of color and women are traditionally more discriminated against by AI systems, and Amazon's own AI research has struggled with this very problem in the past. It's not much of a stretch to see a system trained on white women's voices finding a Black man's voice as sounding more aggressive than it actually was.

Protocol | Workplace

The Activision Blizzard lawsuit has opened the floodgates

An employee walkout, a tumbling stock price and damning new reports of misconduct.

Activision Blizzard is being sued for widespread sexism, harassment and discrimination.

Photo: Bloomberg/Getty Images

Activision Blizzard is in crisis mode. The World of Warcraft publisher was the subject of a shocking lawsuit filed by California's Department of Fair Employment and Housing last week over claims of widespread sexism, harassment and discrimination against female employees. The resulting fallout has only intensified by the day, culminating in a 500-person walkout at the headquarters of Blizzard Entertainment in Irvine on Wednesday.

The company's stock price has tumbled nearly 10% this week, and CEO Bobby Kotick acknowledged in a message to employees Tuesday that Activision Blizzard's initial response was "tone deaf." Meanwhile, there has been a continuous stream of new reports unearthing horrendous misconduct as more and more former and current employees speak out about the working conditions and alleged rampant misogyny at one of the video game industry's largest and most powerful employers.

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Nick Statt
Nick Statt is Protocol's video game reporter. Prior to joining Protocol, he was news editor at The Verge covering the gaming industry, mobile apps and antitrust out of San Francisco, in addition to managing coverage of Silicon Valley tech giants and startups. He now resides in Rochester, New York, home of the garbage plate and, completely coincidentally, the World Video Game Hall of Fame. He can be reached at nstatt@protocol.com.

Over the last year, financial institutions have experienced unprecedented demand from their customers for exposure to cryptocurrency, and we've seen an inflow of institutional dollars driving bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies to record prices. Some banks have already launched cryptocurrency programs, but many more are evaluating the market.

That's why we've created the Crypto Maturity Model: an iterative roadmap for cryptocurrency product rollout, enabling financial institutions to evaluate market opportunities while addressing compliance requirements.

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Caitlin Barnett, Chainanalysis
Caitlin’s legal and compliance experience encompasses both cryptocurrency and traditional finance. As Director of Regulation and Compliance at Chainalysis, she helps leading financial institutions strategize and build compliance programs in order to adopt cryptocurrencies and offer new products to their customers. In addition, Caitlin helps facilitate dialogue with regulators and the industry on key policy issues within the cryptocurrency industry.
Protocol | Workplace

Founder sues the company that acquired her startup

Knoq founder Kendall Hope Tucker is suing the company that acquired her startup for discrimination, retaliation and fraud.

Kendall Hope Tucker, founder of Knoq, is suing Ad Practitioners, which acquired her company last year.

Photo: Kendall Hope Tucker

Kendall Hope Tucker felt excited when she sold her startup last December. Tucker, the founder of Knoq, was sad to "give up control of a company [she] had poured five years of [her] heart, soul and energy into building," she told Protocol, but ultimately felt hopeful that selling it to digital media company Ad Practitioners was the best financial outcome for her, her team and her investors. Now, seven months later, Tucker is suing Ad Practitioners alleging discrimination, retaliation and fraud.

Knoq found success selling its door-to-door sales and analytics services to companies such as Google Fiber, Inspire Energy, Fluent Home and others. Knoq representatives would walk around neighborhoods, knocking on doors to market its customers' products and services. The pandemic, however, threw a wrench in its business. Prior to the acquisition, Knoq says it raised $6.5 million from Initialized Capital, Haystack.vc, Techstars and others.

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Megan Rose Dickey
Megan Rose Dickey is a senior reporter at Protocol covering labor and diversity in tech. Prior to joining Protocol, she was a senior reporter at TechCrunch and a reporter at Business Insider.
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Protocol | Workplace

What’s the purpose of a chief purpose officer?

Cisco's EVP and chief people, policy & purpose officer shares how the company is creating a more conscious and hybrid work culture.

Like many large organizations, the leaders at Cisco spent much of the past year working to ensure their employees had an inclusive and flexible workplace while everyone worked from home during the pandemic. In doing so, they brought a new role into the mix. In March 2021 Francine Katsoudas transitioned from EVP and chief people officer to chief people, policy & purpose Officer.

For many, the role of a purpose officer is new. Purpose officers hold their companies accountable to their mission and the people who work for them. In a conversation with Protocol, Katsoudas shared how she is thinking about the expanded role and the future of hybrid work at Cisco.

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Amber Burton

Amber Burton (@amberbburton) is a reporter at Protocol. Previously, she covered personal finance and diversity in business at The Wall Street Journal. She earned an M.S. in Strategic Communications from Columbia University and B.A. in English and Journalism from Wake Forest University. She lives in North Carolina.

Protocol | Fintech

The digital dollar is coming. The payments industry is worried.

Jodie Kelley heads the Electronic Transactions Association. The trade group's members, who process $7 trillion a year in payments, want a say in the digital currency.

Jodie Kelley is CEO of the Electronic Transactions Association.

Photo: Electronic Transactions Association

The Electronic Transactions Association launched in 1990 just as new technologies, led by the World Wide Web, began upending the world of commerce and finance.

The disruption hasn't stopped.

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Benjamin Pimentel

Benjamin Pimentel ( @benpimentel) covers fintech from San Francisco. He has reported on many of the biggest tech stories over the past 20 years for the San Francisco Chronicle, Dow Jones MarketWatch and Business Insider, from the dot-com crash, the rise of cloud computing, social networking and AI to the impact of the Great Recession and the COVID crisis on Silicon Valley and beyond. He can be reached at bpimentel@protocol.com or via Signal at (510)731-8429.

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