Always-listening Alexa could skip the wake word - if you trusted it

A newly published Amazon patent application details technology that would enable Alexa to listen to what you say before you summon her. The 'pre-wakework speech processing' ability would support phrases that put the wake word ('Alexa,' for example) after the command instead of before it. The technology would fix the 'problem' of clunky wake word placement in phrases.

Alexa users, such as consumers who own an Echo smart speaker, are able to give the AI commands using phrases. Under the current arrangement, users must first say the assistant's wake word, which for most people is 'Alexa.' Though simple, the wake word placement at the beginning of the phrase is a bit awkward when compared to natural language.

Google somewhat sidestepped the awkward phrase structure by using the wake word 'Hey Google,' but Amazon may be taking a different approach, at least based on the patent application spotted by Buzzfeed News.

According to the document published by the USPTO, the new system would capture and process spoken audio said before the Alexa wake word is given. 'The system buffers incoming audio and indicates locations in the audio where the utterance changes, for example when a long pause is detected,' according to the patent application.

Assuming this feature was available and the user chose to activate it, Alexa would be able to detect and respond to phrases like, 'Set an alarm, Alexa,' instead of the less smooth version that would currently have to be used: 'Alexa, set an alarm.'

There are naturally some privacy concerns associated with a system that constantly listens to nearby audio, but Amazon addresses that by stating that the system wouldn't send all of that captured speech back to its servers. As well, the patent application indicates that the system could be set to only monitor the 10 to 30 seconds of audio that happen before the wake word is spoken. This would limit how much speech the system captured at any given time.

As with any patent, it's possible that Amazon may never release this feature. For now, Alexa can only be summoned by first saying the wake word.