Stanford University

To pilot a prototype for the first open-source, privacy-protecting virtual assistant and an open voice web that will keep knowledge open

  • Amount $1,000,000
  • City Stanford, CA
  • Investigator Monica Lam
  • Year 2020
  • Program Technology
  • Sub-program Universal Access to Knowledge

Virtual assistants like Amazon’s Alexa are quickly becoming the gateway to all other digital products and services. The convenience and power of these assistants has led more than 50 million American households to adopt a virtual assistant over the past two years, an astonishing pace. Yet the marketplace for virtual assistants is dominated by just two firms, with Amazon and Google controlling 95% of the market. Because virtual assistants usefully connect to other digitally enabled devices and services, and because they need to constantly listen for voice prompts from their owners, they are poised to collect unprecedented amounts of personal information about consumers, from listening in on all the Internet of Things devices in our houses, to our communications on social media, from email to Facebook, and from our search history and purchasing records to our finances and health. In addition, unlike browser-enabled searches that return a full page of search results, queries of a virtual assistant yield only one answer, giving them a unique ability to shape (and manipulate) what we encounter and what we know via the World Wide Web. Since virtual assistants are powerful intermediaries between consumers and the wider world, it would benefit all consumers if the market for these assistants was robust, giving consumers many options to choose from.       This grant funds a project by Monica Lam, professor of computer science and director of the Open Virtual Assistant Lab at Stanford University, to build and pilot the first prototype of an open source, privacy preserving virtual assistant. The project, if successful, promises to expand the options available to consumers and offer the ease and convenience of a first-class virtual assistant without the sacrifice of personal privacy or transparency.

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