Do you sound friendly? Hostile? And which voice would be more likely to buy something?
It retrieves its analysis of the speaking style you used when you phoned other companies the software firm services. The computer has concluded you are "friendly and talkative." Using predictive routing, it connects you to a customer service agent who company research has identified as being especially good at getting friendly and talkative customers to buy more expensive versions of the goods they're considering.
This hypothetical situation may sound as if it's from some distant future. But automated voice-guided marketing activities like this are happening all the time.
If you hear "This call is being recorded for training and quality control," it isn't just the customer service representative they're monitoring.
It can be you, too.
When conducting research for my forthcoming book, "The Voice Catchers: How Marketers Listen In to Exploit Your Feelings, Your Privacy, and Your Wallet," I went through over 1,000 trade magazine and news articles on the companies connected to various forms of voice profiling. I examined hundreds of pages of U.S. and EU laws applying to biometric surveillance. I analyzed dozens of patents. And because so much about this industry is evolving, I spoke to 43 people who are working to shape it.
It soon became clear to me that we're in the early stages of a voice-profiling revolution that companies see as integral to the future of marketing.
Thanks to the public's embrace of smart speakers, intelligent car displays and voice-responsive phones – along with the rise of voice intelligence in call centers – marketers say they are on the verge of being able to use AI-assisted vocal analysis technology to achieve unprecedented insights into shoppers' identities and inclinations. In doing so, they believe they'll be able to circumvent the errors and fraud associated with traditional targeted advertising.
Not only can people be profiled by their speech patterns, but they can also be assessed by the sound of their voices – which, according to some researchers, is unique and can reveal their feelings, personalities and even their physical characteristics.
Flaws in targeted advertising
Top marketing executives I interviewed said that they expect their customer interactions to include voice profiling within a decade or so.
Part of what attracts them to this new technology is a belief that the current digital system of creating unique customer profiles – and then targeting them with personalized messages, offers and ads – has major drawbacks.
A simmering worry among internet advertisers, one that burst into the open during the 2010s, is that customer data often isn't up to date, profiles may be based on multiple users of a device, names can be confused and people lie.
These are all barriers to understanding individual shoppers.
Voice analysis, on the other hand, is seen as a solution that makes it nearly impossible for people to hide their feelings or evade their identities.
Building out the infrastructure
Most of the activity in voice profiling is happening in customer support centers, which are largely out of the public eye.
But there are also hundreds of millions of Amazon Echoes, Google Nests and other smart speakers out there. Smartphones also contain such technology.
All are listening and capturing people's individual voices. They respond to your requests. But the assistants are also tied to advanced machine learning and deep neural network programs that analyze what you say and how you say it.
Amazon and Google – the leading purveyors of smart speakers outside China – appear to be doing little voice analysis on those devices beyond recognizing and responding to individual owners. Perhaps they fear that pushing the technology too far will, at this point, lead to bad publicity.
Nevertheless, the user agreements of Amazon and Google – as well as Pandora, Bank of America and other companies that people access routinely via phone apps – give them the right to use their digital assistants to understand you by the way you sound. Amazon's most public application of voice profiling so far is its Halo wristband, which claims to know the emotions you're conveying when you talk to relatives, friends and employers.
The company assures customers it doesn't use Halo data for its own purposes. But it's clearly a proof of concept – and a nod toward the future.
Patents point to the future
The patents from these tech companies offer a vision of what's coming.
In one Amazon patent, a device with the Alexa assistant picks up a woman's speech irregularities that imply a cold through using "an analysis of pitch, pulse, voicing, jittering, and/or harmonicity of a user's voice, as determined from processing the voice data." From that conclusion, Alexa asks if the woman wants a recipe for chicken soup. When she says no, it offers to sell her cough drops with one-hour delivery.
Another Amazon patent suggests an app to help a store salesperson decipher a shopper's voice to plumb unconscious reactions to products. The contention is that how people sound allegedly does a better job indicating what people like than their words.
And one of Google's proprietary inventions involves tracking family members in real time using special microphones placed throughout a home. Based on the pitch of voice signatures, Google circuitry infers gender and age information – for example, one adult male and one female child – and tags them as separate individuals.
The company's patent asserts that over time the system's "household policy manager" will be able to compare life patterns, such as when and how long family members eat meals, how long the children watch television, and when electronic game devices are working – and then have the system suggest better eating schedules for the kids, or offer to control their TV viewing and game playing.
In the West, the road to this advertising future starts with firms encouraging users to give them permission to gather voice data. Firms gain customers' permission by enticing them to buy inexpensive voice technologies.
When tech companies have further developed voice analysis software – and people have become increasingly reliant on voice devices – I expect the companies to begin widespread profiling and marketing based on voice data. Hewing to the letter if not the spirit of whatever privacy laws exist, the companies will, I expect, forge ahead into their new incarnations, even if most of their users joined before this new business model existed.
This classic bait and switch marked the rise of both Google and Facebook. Only when the numbers of people flocking to these sites became large enough to attract high-paying advertisers did their business models solidify around selling ads personalized to what Google and Facebook knew about their users.
By then, the sites had become such important parts of their users' daily activities that people felt they couldn't leave, despite their concerns about data collection and analysis that they didn't understand and couldn't control.
This strategy is already starting to play out as tens of millions of consumers buy Amazon Echoes at giveaway prices.
The dark side of voice profiling
Here's the catch: It's not clear how accurate voice profiling is, especially when it comes to emotions.
It is true, according to Carnegie Mellon voice recognition scholar Rita Singh, that the activity of your vocal nerves is connected to your emotional state. However, Singh told me that she worries that with the easy availability of machine-learning packages, people with limited skills will be tempted to run shoddy analyses of people's voices, leading to conclusions that are as dubious as the methods.
She also argues that inferences that link physiology to emotions and forms of stress may be culturally biased and prone to error. That concern hasn't deterred marketers, who typically use voice profiling to draw conclusions about individuals' emotions, attitudes and personalities.
While some of these advances promise to make life easier, it's not difficult to see how voice technology can be abused and exploited. What if voice profiling tells a prospective employer that you're a bad risk for a job that you covet or desperately need? What if it tells a bank that you're a bad risk for a loan? What if a restaurant decides it won't take your reservation because you sound low class, or too demanding?
Consider, too, the discrimination that can take place if voice profilers follow some scientists' claims that it is possible to use an individual's vocalizations to tell the person's height, weight, race, gender and health.
People are already subjected to different offers and opportunities based on the personal information companies have collected. Voice profiling adds an especially insidious means of labeling. Today, some states such as Illinois and Texas require companies to ask for permission before conducting analysis of vocal, facial or other biometric features.
But other states expect people to be aware of the information that's collected about them from the privacy policies or terms of service – which means they rarely will. And the federal government hasn't enacted a sweeping marketing surveillance law.
With the looming widespread adoption of voice analysis technology, it's important for government leaders to adopt policies and regulations that protect the personal information revealed by the sound of a person's voice.
One proposal: While the use of voice authentication – or using a person's voice to prove their identity – could be allowed under certain carefully regulated circumstances, all voice profiling should be prohibited in marketers' interactions with individuals. This prohibition should also apply to political campaigns and to government activities without a warrant.
That seems like the best way to ensure that the coming era of voice profiling is constrained before it becomes too integrated into daily life and too pervasive to control.
The more you see them, the better you get at spotting the signs.
When Donald Trump belatedly acknowledged defeat two months after last year's US presidential election, some news reports zeroed in on a fundamental question: whether his speech had actually happened at all.
The dramatic proliferation of deepfakes – online imagery that can make anybody appear to do or say anything within the limits of one's imagination, cruelty, or cunning – has begun to undermine faith in our ability to discern reality.
According to one startup's estimate, the number of deepfake videos online jumped from 14,678 in 2019 to 145,277 by June of the following year. Last month, the FBI warned that "malicious actors" will likely deploy deepfakes in the US for foreign influence operations and criminal activity in the near future. Around the world, there are concerns the technology will increasingly become a source of disinformation, division, fraud and extortion.
When Myanmar's ruling junta recently posted a video of someone incriminating the country's detained civilian leader, it was widely dismissed as a deepfake. Last year, the Belgian prime minister's remarks linking COVID-19 to climate change turned out to be a deepfake, and Indian politician Manoj Tiwari's use of the technology for campaigning caused alarm. In Gabon, belief that a video of the country's ailing president was a deepfake triggered a national crisis in early 2019.
However, some say a more pressing issue is the increased vulnerability of non-public figures to online assault. Indian journalist Rana Ayyub has detailed attempts to silence her using deepfake pornography, for example.
Some argue the threat of the technology itself is overhyped – and that the real problem is that bad actors can now dismiss video evidence of wrongdoing by crying "deepfake" in the same way they might dismiss media reports that they dislike as "fake news."
Still, according to one report, technically-sophisticated, "tailored" deepfakes present a significant threat; these may be held in reserve for a key moment, like an election, to maximize impact. As of 2020 the estimated cost for the technology necessary to churn out a "state-of-the-art" deepfake was less than $30,000, according to the report.
The popularizing of the term "deepfakes" had a sordid origin in 2018. Calls to regulate or ban them have grown since then; related legislation has been proposed in the US, and in 2019 China made it a criminal offense to publish a deepfake without disclosure. Facebook said last year it would ban deepfakes that aren't parody or satire, and Twitter said it would ban deepfakes likely to cause harm.
It's been suggested that the best way to inoculate people against the danger of deepfakes is through exposure. A variety of efforts have been made to help the public understand what's at stake.
Last year, the creators of the popular American cartoon series "South Park" posted the viral video "Sassy Justice," which features deepfaked versions of Trump and Mark Zuckerberg. They explained in an interview that anxiety about deepfakes may have taken a back seat to pandemic-related fears, but the topic nonetheless merits demystifying.
For more context, here are links to further reading from the World Economic Forum's Strategic Intelligence platform:
- A growing awareness of deepfakes meant people were quickly able to spot bogus online profiles of "Amazon employees" bashing unions, according to this report – though a hyper-awareness of the technology could also lead people to stop believing in real media. (MIT Technology Review)
- The systems designed to help us detect deepfakes can be deceived, according to a recently-published study – by inserting "adversarial examples" into every video frame and tripping up machine learning models. (Science Daily)
- Authoritarian regimes can exploit cries of "deepfake." According to this opinion piece, claims of deepfakery and video manipulation are increasingly being used by the powerful to claim plausible deniability when incriminating footage surfaces. (Wired)
- It's easy to blame deepfakes for the proliferation of misinformation, but according to this opinion piece the technology is no more effective than more traditional means of lying creatively – like simply slapping a made-up quote onto someone's image and sharing it. (NiemanLab)
- A recently-published study found that one in three Singaporeans aware of deepfakes believe they've circulated deepfake content on social media, which they later learned was part of a hoax. (Science Daily)
- "It really makes you feel powerless." Deepfake pornography is ruining women's lives, according to this report, though a legal solution may be forthcoming. (MIT Technology Review)
- "A propaganda Pandora's box in the palm of every hand." Deepfake efforts remain relatively easily detected, according to this piece – but soon the same effects that once required hundreds of technicians and millions of dollars will be possible with a mobile phone. (Australian Strategic Policy Institute)
Is breakup sex ever a good idea?
- A July 2020 study aimed to better understand post-breakup behavior, specifically why we have breakup sex.
- This research established there are three main reasons people engage in breakup sex: relationship maintenance, ambivalence, and hedonism.
- Experts weigh in on whether or not breakup sex can be beneficial.
Why do we really have breakup sex?
Credit: rodjulian on Adobe Stock
A July 2020 research study sought to better understand post-breakup behavior by looking at the practice of breakup sex. This research consisted of two studies: one to identify how past breakup sex experiences made the people involved feel versus how they predicted they would feel in the future, and the other investigated why men and women engage in breakup sex at all.
Men and women want to have breakup sex for different reasons.
The first study included 212 participants. The results suggested that men are more likely than women to have felt better about themselves after breakup sex, whereas women were more likely to feel better about the relationship after having breakup sex.
The second study included 585 participants and the results of this study revealed that most breakup sex appears to be motivated by three main factors: relationship maintenance, hedonism, and ambivalence.
In other words, common reasons to have breakup sex include: because it feels good, because we are conflicted over how we feel about the person, and/or because we think there is maybe a way to salvage things. With this particular study, men tended to support more hedonistic and ambivalent reasons for having breakup sex more often than women.
Most research says breakup sex is unhealthy
Is breakup sex healthy? Research claims it's not...
Credit: fizkes on Adobe Stock
While the media may portray breakup sex as beneficial, does it actually do anything to help us cope with, mend, or move on from the ending of a significant relationship? The majority of research suggests that it's unhealthy, however, every situation is different and there are almost always exceptions to the rules.
Psychology Today reminds us that when a relationship ends, those feelings that you had for the person don't just magically disappear. It can be a complicated and messy process—one that doesn't always have a clear path forward. The article goes on to explain some of the reasons breakup sex is unhealthy.
It can give you false hope.
Perhaps spending one more night together will convince you that the relationship isn't over or that you can continue just having sex without continuing the relationship.
It stops you from moving forward.
While there's no set time in which you should grieve the ending of a relationship, still seeing that person in any kind of sexual or romantic capacity is not going to help you heal and move forward to find better partners.
The rush of hormones can make you feel differently than you actually do feel (temporarily).
Oxytocin and other hormones released during sex are known for providing comforting, loving emotions. This can be quite conflicting when you don't actually feel that way with the person, but your body (due to sexual activity) is telling you that you do.
However, some experts claim there are some benefits to breakup sex.
Can breakup sex ever be beneficial? Some experts think it can.
Image by Naufal on Adobe Stock
Psychosexual and relationship psychotherapist Kate Moyle spoke with Elite Daily about some of the reasons why breakup sex could potentially feel helpful to those involved.
Breakup sex could allow you to be bolder in bed, leading you to more sexual satisfaction. According to Moyle, it can allow people to lose their inhibitions because they are less afraid of judgment or reaction because the relationship is ending.
Breakup sex can also be therapeutic.
In his interview with Elite Daily, licensed Psychotherapist Dr. John D. Moore explains that breakup sex can be one facet of the drawn-out process of ending a relationship. While most people assume relationship endings are an immediate event, Moore suggests it's more of an ongoing process.
After a breakup, your feelings are in a heightened state, which can allow you to emotionally connect with a partner in a more intense way, which can allow you both to work through some of the emotions surrounding the ending of your relationship. In the interview, Moore goes on to explain that breakup sex almost has the ability to validate certain parts of your relationship (perhaps your physical connection or chemistry) that once worked really well. It can be a celebration of the parts of your relationship you both loved and a way to let go of the relationship due to the things that won't make it work.
Is breakup sex worth it?
Some research is against it, some experts are for it, so is breakup sex worth it? It seems almost entirely situational. If you're having breakup sex because you are still hoping to save your relationship, perhaps it's best to steer clear of it to avoid more hurt feelings. However, if you're interested in breakup sex to celebrate and validate each other and the good parts of your relationship, there is proof that it can do that.
A study explores how your dog does when you're not home.
- Just exactly how much are dogs upset when we leave?
- A new study finds that dogs spend time looking for us after we're gone.
- The experiment also found that dogs are more relaxed when we give them an affectionate, gentle petting before leaving.
Between the heartrending sad eyes when we leave and the explosion of happiness when we return, many (rightfully flattered) dog owners reasonably wonder what happens in-between. The physical evidence suggests nothing really bad happens—outside the occasional chewed slipper—but it's nonetheless clear our dogs would prefer not to be left behind.
A new study from researchers at the Universities of Pisa and Perugia, Italy, confirms that canines don't exhibit signs of extreme upset while we're away. However, the scientists found that dogs do have an easier time emotionally when we give them an affectionate, gentle petting before leaving.
The study is published in ScienceDirect.
Credit: SUJIN/Adobe Stock
The researchers conducted experiments with 10 healthy dogs between 1-11 years old and without unusual attachment issues. Six were spayed females and four were neutered males. The group was composed of seven mixed-breed dogs, one Labrador retriever, one Hovawart, and one Chihuahua.
The tests were conducted in an outdoor, fenced-in area and were videotaped for later analysis. Their owners walked their leashed dogs into the fenced area where they greeted a researcher, AKA Test Leader 1. A second researcher measured the dog's heartbeat using a phonendoscope and quickly departed.
Each dog was tested twice. In the first test, called the NGT ("No Gentle Touch") test, the owner and Test Leader 1 chatted for minute, essentially ignoring the dog. For the second, WGT ("With Gentle Touch") test, the owner petted the dog during the one-minute Test Leader 1 chat.
In both tests, after the brief chat, the owner handed the leash to Test Leader 1 and hid behind a shed for three minutes at a distance considered too far for the dog to pick up its owner's scent. The dog was free to move around the enclosure to the extent that the 1.5 meter leash allowed. The dogs spent a significant amount the time looking for their owner—in three minutes, they searched for between 84.5 and 87.5 seconds.
After the separation, Team Leader 1 called over the owner, and the leash was handed off. After 15 minutes of light activity, the dog's saliva was tested for the presence and level of the stress hormone cortisol.
All dogs participated in both tests, separately. Tests were spaced 5-9 days apart and took place at roughly the same times for consistency of cortisol levels.
The researchers found that when dogs had been petted they exhibited a more relaxed demeanor during the separation.
The canines' heart rates were tested before and after separation—they may have been elevated from the start from the car trip to the test site. After the NGT test, dogs' heart rates were unchanged by the separation. After the WGT test, dogs' heart rates actually went down, indicating the experiment left them more relaxed than they were when they arrived.
Cortisol levels were the same after both tests.
The study suggests it would be a good idea to develop the habit of building in a little extra departure time for your buddy each time you plan to leave home. Your dog will be happier for it.
A new look at existing data by LSU researchers refutes the Trump administration's claims.
- The United States Department of Defense gifts surplus military equipment and clothing to local police departments.
- The militarization of police coincides with a significant loss of trust in law enforcement from the American public.
- Militarized police departments are more likely to interact violently with their communities.
Watching coverage of protests in American streets, many of us have been shocked to witness what modern policing often looks like. Even putting aside the reason for many of these demonstrations in the first place—allegations of police brutality—what we see onscreen marching towards protestors is chilling. We witness police garbed in helmets, flak jackets, tactical dress, and carrying assault rifles, backed by weaponry designed for the battlefield, not the nation's thoroughfares.
The primary source of this equipment and clothing is the Federal government's 1033 program, which has been described as "Uncle Sam's Goodwill Store." This surplus military equipment (SME)—or "reutilized" gear as the Department of Defense (DOD) calls it—is granted, for free, to local law enforcement agencies, or "LEAs." WIRED estimates the Pentagon has gifted to local police some $7.3 billion worth of military equipment and clothing.
Concerned about the manner in which this militarization has affected policing, and following 2014's Ferguson protests, President Obama curtailed the program. The Trump administration removed these limits in 2017, claiming research had proved militarization reduces crime.
A new study from Louisiana State University (LSU) revisits that research, finding it incomplete and inconsistent. The researchers, led by LSU political scientist Anna Gunderson, collected their own more comprehensive and accurate data and concluded that militarizing local police does not actually reduce crime.
A wide lack of support
Credit: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Getty Images
It's no wonder that more than half of the American public no longer trusts the police. It's hard not to get the impression that for many police departments, the mission has changed from one of support for its communities to an attempt to intimidate and dominate its members.
Studies back this up. Police whose departments use military equipment are more often violent with community members and are more likely to kill them. Neither is this a small problem at the margins of policing: Over 1,000 people are killed by police annually.
In spite of the Trump administration's faith in the soundness of the 1033 program, others from across the political spectrum disagree. On the right, the Charles Koch Foundation asserts, "This erosion of public confidence in law enforcement and low support for militarization impedes law enforcement's ability to effectively secure public safety." From the left, the American Civil Liberties Union says, "We advocate for a return to a less dangerous, more collaborative style of policing. We should not be able to mistake our officers for soldiers."
Credit: JeremyAdobe Stock
Gunderson explains to LSU Media Center that, "scholars rely on accurate data to track and analyze the true effect of police militarization on crime. Policymakers also need accurate data to base their decisions upon. However, to-date, we do not have reliable data on SME transfers to local police and sheriffs through the federal government."
The research cited by the Trump administration was a study done by the American Economic Association based on SME data collected through a 2014 Freedom of Information Act request. Having a look at that data themselves, along with other FOIA 2014 data released by National Public Radio and newer data from 2018, the LSU researchers found that things didn't quite line up. Where FOIA suggests certain counties received SME, NPR's data showed no such transfer. Similarly, NPR reported departments receiving items such as weapons, grants that were not reflected in the 2018 data as expected.
"When we looked at the data and ran the replications, nothing looked like the results being cited by the Trump Administration," Gunderson recalls. "We spent a year trying to diagnose the problem."
The LSU researchers' conclusion was the the previously released SME data from the DOD was too inconsistent to produce reliable insights. They conducted their own analysis, aligning newer data with country-level LEA data, to derive a cohesive, accurate picture that allowed them to more definitively assess who got SME transfers and who didn't, and what effect it had on local crime statistics.
They found no indication that SME transfers led to a reduction in crime. The study concludes, "we find no evidence that federal distributions of SME to local LEAs across the United States reduce crime rates, neither violent nor nonviolent crime rates, in the jurisdictions that receive it."
"This is a cautionary tale about the importance of oversight. The most important thing for policymakers and the public to know is that you can't justify giving surplus military equipment to police departments on the grounds it will lead to a reduction in crime. There is no evidence for that. You can't claim this program is important because it reduces crime."
What's more says, the report, "because of serious data problems and debatable methodological choices in prior studies, the empirical foundations on which social scientists, along with policymakers and the public, stand when making causal claims about the effects of the transfers of SME may be no firmer than quicksand."