Days after microblogging platform Twitter labelled the Indian territory of Leh in Ladakh as part of People’s Republic of China (PRC), Amazon’s Artificial Intelligence (AI) powered virtual assistant Alexa has now embroiled in a similar controversy.
The social media backlash against the tech company began after a Twitter user uploaded a video where Alexa categorised Kashmir as a part of China’s territory. “Alexa, Kashmir kis desh ka hissa hai (Alexa, Kashmir is a part of which country?)”, the twitter user asked Alexa in Hindi. The AI-powered Alexa Echo replied, “Ya aapka sawal ka jawab ho sakta hai. Kashmir China mein sthit hai (This can be an answer to your question. Kashmir is located in China).”
When asked from alexa that kashmir is part of which country it says china.— Bhuvan Luthra (@bhuvan_luthra) October 23, 2020
Boycott amazon.@MeghUpdates @FrontalAssault1 @TechnicalGuruji @republic @pradip103 @ZeeNewsEnglish @CNNnews18 @AmitShah @BJP4Delhi @adgpi @Aryan_warlord @tech_burner @ajaishukla @TheWolfpackIN pic.twitter.com/EdaCwoULKs
Another Twitter user then tried finding the same answer about the location of Kashmir. Alexa replied, “This can be an answer to your question. Kashmir is located in China.”
Opindia has independently verified the claims made on social media about Alexa. However, the error is only limited to the Hindi version. When the language is changed to English, Alexa says that Kashmir is a part of Northern India.
How does Alexa work?
As per reports, Alexa uses a machine-learning algorithm and more than a dozen ‘question-answer techniques’ to determine the best response to a user query. The artificial intelligence-powered virtual assistant relies on licensed data from sources, which it deems as high quality, to provide answers to questions. It is pertinent to remember that Amazon is not a search engine and has therefore limited access to information. Far from the common perception that Alexa uses Microsoft’s search engine Bing, their partnership is restricted to only ‘supplemental items.’
In 2019, Amazon launched a feature for Alexa called Alexa Answers to extend the corpus of its available information. Such answers to queries, generated from other users and not their reliable sources, were to have a statutory caution on it. However, just like user-driven content on YouTube and Reddit is marred by fake news and political agenda, it has left many wondering whether information on Alexa has similarly been vandalised.
Although Amazon has been optimistic about its new feature by filtering profanity and political questions automatically, use of an upvote and downvote system, it could not be ascertained whether the error about Kashmir’s location was due to Alexa answers or a flaw in their high-quality sources.
Amazon issues statement after social media backlash
Following the controversy, the official Twitter handle of Amazon Help reached out to the agitated netizens.
It tweeted, “Thanks for bringing this to our attention. We’ve forwarded this information to the appropriate team for research. Keep us posted if you need assistance in the future. We’re always available.”
Thanks for bringing this to our attention. We’ve forwarded this information to the appropriate team for research. Keep us posted if you need assistance in the future. We’re always available. ^DA— Amazon Help (@AmazonHelp) October 23, 2020
Google Assistant provides the correct location of Kashmir
Meanwhile, a Twitter user tried to gather a response for the same query on his Google Nest Mini, which uses Google Assistant to provide answers to users. He asked, “Okay Google, Kashmir kis desh mein sthith hai?” The Google Assistant replied, “According to Wikipedia, Jammu and Kashmir was an Indian State till August 5, 2019 and was later bifurcated into Union territory of Ladakh and Union territory of Jammu and Kashmir.”
Google’s response marks a stark contrast to that of Alexa. It must be remembered that unlike Amazon’s virtual assistant, Google is a search engine with access to billions of web pages. It was, therefore, able to pluck answers from the web pages indexed on its site.
However, while Google answered this question correctly, a word of caution must be put as it sources this information from Wikipedia. And while this information by Wikipedia is correct, there have been innumerable instances where Wikipedia, a user-edited online resource, has put out misleading, biased and sometimes blatantly untrue information.
Twitter labels Ladakh as part of China’s territory
During a live session on Twitter, national security analyst Nitin A Gokhale found that Twitter has labelled the Indian territory of Leh in Ladakh as part of People’s Republic of China (PRC). Gokhale, the founder of Strat News Global, had marked his location as ‘Hall of Fame Leh’. However, the microblogging platform displayed the area as a part of PRC. The screengrab of the video read, “Nitin A Gokhale was live. Jammu and Kashmir, People’s Republic of China.
While slamming Twitter for its outrageous action, the national security analyst demanded immediate action from the Government of India against the microblogging platform. He urged netizens to flood Twitter with complaints so as to mount pressure on the micro-blogging platform to correct the error. Following a social media outrage, Twitter issued a statement claiming that the error was the result of a technical glitch.
On Tuesday, Nitin A Gokhale went live on Twitter yet again but this time from the Kushok Bakula Rimpochee Airport area in Leh. However, to his surprise, the national security analyst found that the microblogging platform had not fixed the technical glitch, despite being well aware of the sensitivity around it. Even though Twitter did not include Leh as part of the People’s Republic of China anymore, it, however, labelled the region as part of the Union territory of Jammu and Kashmir.