Instagram, TikTok, Messenger, Snapchat, WhatsApp… Social networks and instant messaging have invaded our daily lives for better and for worse. Because with them appeared practices, blessed by some but hated by others, revealing of our society. “L’Obs” dissects them here.

In the open space, everyone is bent over their computer. Clapping of the keys on the keyboard, clicking of the mice, sighing when a sentence does not take the desired turn… Each at his desk, the journalists of the “Obs” write their paper, concentrated. When suddenly, the silence is broken. “Hey Siri, call Mary”commands a journalist to his voice assistant. “I call Mary”he replies with his robotic voice.

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“Alexa, shut up! » : my life with a voice assistant

Siri, Alexa, Cortana… These names are certainly not unknown to you. Installed on mobile phones, computers, connected speakers, voice assistants have taken over our daily lives. According to a study carried out for La Poste in 2021, more than one in two French people use a voice assistant. And a good third of people equipped use it at least once a day.

And these users willingly admit having trouble doing without it. “It’s much faster to say ‘Ok Google’, give instructions and wait for the machine to do the rest”explains to “Obs” Damien, a consultant in a telecom company. “It’s very practical when I’m too lazy to type a search or a message”completes Jeanne, a musicology student.


Make a call, do a search on the internet, change the piece of music… These assistants can do a lot. Or too much? To be always alert, they spend their time listening to us, ready to react as soon as we ring them. We have seen this ourselves while writing this article. When discussing the general annoyance this technology provides, we bring up the name of the device. Then reason a small sound in the corner of the room. And all of a sudden : “it goes like clockwork”, Siri answers a question that has never been asked. General amazement.

Help to overcome ” laziness “ or essential tool, faster and more efficient than typing on your keyboard, what are these assistants really for? Users prefer searching for information, listening to music or telephone functions (calls, SMS). Only 7% of French people, especially men, also use it to make purchases. Also very popular is the practice of asking assistants for jokes. Because Siri is indeed a comic, and virtual assistants are also programmed to make fun, with the help of some joke writers and parameterized algorithms.

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Voice assistants will soon even be able to make the dead speak. This was announced at the end of June by Rohit Prasad, first vice-president of Alexa, Amazon’s assistant: after only one minute of listening, the device will be able to imitate voices, in particular those of deceased people. The American giant also clarified that it would be possible to ask the voice assistant to imitate the voice of relatives or personalities. These voices can be used to read stories, turn on lights or even play music from an Alexa device.

Daily help

Like Damien or Jeanne, 77% of people questioned for La Poste consider that voice assistants improve their daily lives. This is also the case for Christelle, 55, visually impaired. On his kitchen table, “the central room of the apartment, therefore the most practical”, she placed a discreet Alexa speaker. On the phone, she demonstrates to us: “Alexa, put France-Inter”. Reasons then the voice of Nicolas Demorand. “Handy, huh? », she rejoices. For Christelle, this voice assistant is “like a crutch”. She uses it to listen to the radio, check her calendar or dictate emails. “I would almost forget my handicap”she sighs.

The intelligence of voice assistants put to the test

Apple’s personal assistant, Siri, celebrated its 10th birthday on October 4: voice assistants are now an integral part of our daily lives. However, their use is still mostly limited to the private sphere: 84% of people questioned use their assistant from home, compared to only 18% in the street and 6% on public transport. Half of the respondents to a study by the American consulting firm Perficient find its use in this context disturbing. “Despite what you might think, it is mainly at home that the French have adopted this technology”explains to “Obs” Antonio Casilli, teacher-researcher at Télécom ParisTech and author of “Waiting for robots”. “But these devices being installed on mobile tools, the permeability between the public sphere and the private sphere is potentially greater. »

Behind the technology, humans

To be “intelligent”, voice assistants still do need humans. men and women who “listen in the dark”, as Antonio Casilli explains. This is for example the case of Julie, who, in a long testimony given in 2018 to La Quadrature du Net, an association for the defense of the rights and freedoms of citizens on the internet, explains what her work consists of. Responsible for improving the functioning of Cortana, Microsoft’s voice assistant, she listened between April and December 2017 to bits of thousands of private conversations recorded by the device.

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“We listened to the audio recording, then a text appeared, showing us what Cortana had understood and transcribed. Our job was to check if she had understood correctly. If this was not the case, we had to correct the text, the slightest mistake in understanding, conjugation or spelling.she summarizes.

Every day, between 120 and 170 recordings lasting from 3 to 15 seconds are analyzed in this way. The sequences consulted, for the most part too short, never on their own make it possible to reconstruct the entirety of a conversation. But make it possible to enter user requests in passing: innocuous questions about the weather, messages dictated to the assistant, sometimes of a sexual nature, or insults when the answer given by Cortana is deemed disappointing by the user.

READ ALSO > “Alexa, is anyone else listening to us?” » Sometimes, yes…

Because despite the claims of their producers, the virtual assistants that equip the connected speakers that end up in our pockets, installed on our smartphones, are not born intelligent. They must learn to interpret the queries and habits of their users. “They must also “train” the devices to make them more efficient, more intuitive, more precise”, explains Antonio Casilli. And to conclude: “To train the smart solutions, the confidentiality of the personal data used is at risk. They presuppose the transfer of large amounts of personal data and exist, even today, in a legal and ethical gray area. » Consider this when asking Alexa to email your RIB details.

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