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Joseph Turow
Joseph Turow

Annenberg School for Communication | University of Pennsylvania

Seductive Surveillance and Social Change: The Rise of the Voice Intelligence Industry


Not fully a decade old, the emerging voice intelligence industry involves smart speakers, car information systems, customer service calls, and “connected-home” devices such as thermostats and alarms. When you speak, their “intelligent assistants” can draw inferences about you using algorithms generated by artificial intelligence. The activity involves inferring individuals’ emotions, sentiments, and personality characteristics from their voices in order to persuade them, often in in real time. The possibility in the not-so-distant future may be to home in people’s weight, height, age, ethnicity, and more—all things scientists believe leak through from your voice. The power marketers have to model ways to discriminate among consumers and citizens— and to erode their freedom to make choices under the guise of giving them new ways to choose—is unprecedented and troubling.

Drawing from my forthcoming book The Voice Catchers (Yale U Press, early 2021), I pose two key questions about this new development in the United States: How has the voice intelligence industry been able to gain the kind of social traction that has tens of millions of people giving their up voiceprints to so-called “intelligent assistants”? And in the face of this widespread shift to voice bio-profiling, what social policies should concerned citizens advocate to slow the process and implement regulations regarding this new form of surveillance?


Joseph Turow is Robert Lewis Shayon Professor of Communication at the Annenberg School for Communication. Turow is an elected Fellow of the International Communication Association and was presented with a Distinguished Scholar Award by the National Communication Association. A 2005 New York Times Magazine article referred to Turow as “probably the reigning academic expert on media fragmentation.” In 2010, the New York Times called him "the ranking wise man on some thorny new-media and marketing topics." In 2012, the TRUSTe internet privacy-management organization designated him a "privacy pioneer" for his research and writing on marketing and digital-privacy. Here is his most recent privacy report covered in the New York Times.

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