Amazon's enlisting your help in making Alexa smarter, for better or worse

Don't be surprised if this idea goes south at some point

Help Amazon make Alexa smarter
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Amazon has rolled out its Alexa Answers platform to all users, allowing anyone to sign up to help Alexa answer tricky questions more accurately.

The system has been in beta since the end of last year, but will now be open to the world with a somewhat gamified system to encourage participation.

Read more: The best Amazon Alexa commands to use

Users provide responses to questions that Alexa isn't able to answer, which are then submitted to a sort of crowd-sourced fact-checking system (which may not be much of a fact-checking system at all).

Amazon does have filters in place to make sure profanity and offensive terms don't get through, but Alexa users can also give answers thumbs-ups and thumbs-downs to indicate the quality of the answer they're given – so it's unclear how much of a safeguard this is.

Other Alexa Answers users can also give star ratings to responses – good answers will end up used by the smart assistant, while consistently poorly-rated ones will be removed. Now, where does the threshold lie before an answer is used? That's not something Amazon's detailing right now. It sounds an awful lot like answers could well be repeated by Alexa without being verified by an employee or expert.

You can filter the questions you're presented with according to genre and topic, and answers that end up being used provide points that are pinned to your account. That's right, we're talking leaderboards and a manufactured sense of achievement. Maybe at some point Amazon will incentivize participation with the chance to earn vouchers or discounts, but for now it's all about the clout.

Amazon's enlisting your help in making Alexa smarter

When we logged into the Alexa Answers website with our Amazon account, for example, we were presented with the question "When was the Statue of Liberty completed?" A bit of research later, and our answer (1886, unless you count its construction in France in 1885) is now under consideration.

If it's accurate, it'll be added to the database and Alexa will be able to use it when people ask it about that iconic landmark. If someone else also gives a good answer, the assistant may cycle between them to provide variety, according to Amazon.

On the one hand, this could be a nice way to engage people in the process of Alexa's development, and if rewards are ever added could become a nice way to earn some benefits. More than that, given current concerns over the use of recordings to improve assistants, it's good that Amazon is exploring other ways and means.

But, for now, there also have to be major questions over whether this sort of platform could be open to abuse, and whether it will be used in the spirit Amazon's seemingly hoping for. If we hear about rogue answers slipping through to actual use, we'll know it's gone wrong.

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