Amazon wants to cheer me up

Fully Charged
Bloomberg

Hey y'all, it's Austin. As the pandemic drags on, I'll admit that I'm grumpier than ever. Between being stuck inside a small New York City apartment all day and mostly only communicating with outsiders online, I wouldn't be surprised if my friends, family and coworkers can sense my restlessness and frustration in our every Zoom call. Thankfully, though, there's now a technological solution to my becoming the mayor of frown town: Amazon Halo, a wearable device designed to analyze voice tones in order to detect user emotions.

Last week, the e-commerce behemoth introduced its new fitness tracker. It will do physical health monitoring, which has become big business in recent years with rise of the Apple Watch, the Oura Ring and Fitbit Inc., which Alphabet Inc. has agreed to buy. But Halo has also jumped on a newer trend: Emotional health monitoring. Amazon's announcement that Halo would measure wearers' moods came the same week that Fitbit said it would measure stress levels. Emotional analysis is fast attracting big investment, with machines now being trained to study human personality traits, compassion levels and facial expressions.

Does this novel data collection mark the next era of digital personalization, or a concerning new generation of privacy intrusion?

Marketing Halo's privacy standards was clearly paramount to Amazon, which has struggled to keep a lid on the voice recordings the company studies to improve the speech recognition of its Alexa virtual assistant. Two microphones built into the Halo wristband listen to your speech tones throughout the day, and, according to Amazon, are capable of inferring whether you sound happy, sad, excited or tired. Recognizing the potential creep factor, Amazon is emphasizing that the feature is opt-in and that any voice samples are only tracked locally on the device itself, rather than being sent to the cloud for further analysis, human or otherwise.

For consumers, it may feel like a risky value proposition for such a seemingly superficial outcome. Do I really want or need Halo to tell me I may have sounded like a jerk to my Lyft driver or local barista? Amazon is betting so, highlighting how its artificial intelligence can understand "energy and positivity," and via a corresponding Halo app, tell you about how you might be perceived by your "waiter, interviewer, kids, colleagues, mom, partner, [or] boss."

Dr. Maulik Majmudar, the principal medical officer for Amazon Halo, said in a blog post that the product's listening service, called Tone, has real-world connotations for mental health. "I have been working from home with three kids under the age of four, so I use Tone to gut check that I am not taking any stress out on my family or friends," he wrote. "I check my Tone results so that I can be more intentional about how I communicate in these strange times—and have noticed it takes a burden off my wife, as she doesn't have to be the one to tell me I am overly stressed."

Without peer-reviewed studies on the actual health benefits of such a product, it's hard to evaluate Majmudar's claims. But it's funny to imagine adjusting one's behavior based on a computer spitting out minute-by-minute assessments of your mood, like an auto-tune for human emotion. An example of the Halo smartphone app shows a user sounding "hopeful" and "carefree" at 10:30 a.m., while by 10:42 a.m., switching to sounding "elated." Apparently a successful 12 minutes!

Of course, such systems inevitably face potential machine bias. Experts have warned that the results of emotional AI can be inconsistent, overblown and discriminatory. And while Amazon has promised that voice samples won't be used for targeted advertising, there's always the risk that emotion profiling could be used in unexpected ways down the road to track consumer behavior.

Ultimately, whether Halo's voice analysis will find a meaningful market depends on not what emotional data it can collect, but what it does with that data. When the Apple Watch detects that users are sitting for too long, for example, it urges them to stand and move around. If Amazon Halo infers that I'm depressed, could it one day recommend music or TV shows available on Prime to cheer me up? Or show how my bouts of discontent may correspond to sleeping or exercise patterns? Or demonstrate what fitness activities are most likely translate to me sounding happy? That might be worth the app's $4 per month subscription cost.

Until then, I don't need a $100 wearable robot to tell me the pandemic is making me a grumpster. In our weekly catch-up calls, my parents can do that for free. Austin Carr

If you read one thing

The PC is back! Following years of stagnation during the mobile-device boom, HP and Dell topped Wall Street estimates last week following a surge in personal computer sales amid the pandemic. "Rather than having one PC per home, it's having one PC per person," said HP Chief Executive Officer Enrique Lores.

And here's what you need to know in global technology news

At an event on Friday that seemed lifted from science fiction, Elon Musk said that his startup Neuralink has inserted brain implants into pigs, and may one day be able to accomplish such fantastical tasks as restoring the ability to walk in people with spinal injuries, "solving" blindness and allowing people to record and replay memories. (Not to mention achieving symbiosis with artificial intelligence.) "This is obviously starting to sound like a Black Mirror episode," Musk said. Adding: "They're pretty good at predicting." 

In other Musk news: The billionaire confirmed Tesla was the target of a $1 million cyberattack scheme.

Meme monopoly? Facebook is at loggerheads with the U.K.'s merger watchdog over its purchase of Giphy, the animate GIF messaging service.             

Xioami, the Chinese smartphone maker competing against Apple and Huawei, has rebounded from a sour 2018 initial public offering and seen its share price soar to all-time highs.

 

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