Alexa has been a hit, helping Amazon capture an early lead in the voice-activated speaker market through the Echo and igniting an arms race among tech giants to see who can build the best digital assistant.
But Alexa was a somewhat risky proposition for Amazon. It wasn’t exactly a logical extension of its business. Amazon believed in the power of voice, and saw the digital brain as a way to make its customers’ lives easier.
“We have a strong belief that voice will be a big part of the future and a big part of how customers interact with technology,” Toni Reid, Amazon’s vice president of Alexa Experiences and Echo Devices, said at the 2017 GeekWire Summit. “We’ve had this view for many years. The team has been working on parts of the Alexa service for many years.”
Alexa started with only 13 voice-activated apps, or “skills” in Amazon parlance. Since then, Alexa has amassed more than 25,000 skills and counting. Amazon has steadily introduced new Alexa-powered devices, culminating in a big event last month that marked the announcement of six new and updated Alexa devices.
Alexa’s early success can be partially attributed to the company’s decision to open the digital brain up to developers and device manufacturers in 2015. The Alexa Skills Kit encourages third-party developers to build skills for Alexa. Developers who want to add to Alexa’s abilities can write code that works with Alexa in the cloud, letting the smart assistant do the heavy lifting of understanding and deciphering spoken commands.
Alexa had plenty of believers in the early days, but there were some skeptics as well, even within the teams working on the project. That’s because the Echo attempted to do something that had never been done before: taking speech from 15 or 20 feet away, filtering out all other noise, recognizing it and responding rapidly.
“I think skepticism is actually really good in the product development process,” said Reid, who has been with Amazon since 1998 and working on Alexa since 2014. “It keeps teams on their toes. You have to listen to the skeptics as well to find out why they’re skeptical and are there blindspots.”
Reid acknowledged that Alexa today is far from perfect. The AI and machine learning skills powering the digital assistant will continue to improve.
Sometimes, commands require too many steps, and Amazon is trying to reduce those barriers through features like Routines, which allows developers and users to pair multi-step commands together.
Amazon is also looking to continue building on Alexa’s personality. The Saturday Night Live spoof of the Echo, where seniors had rambling conversations with a device called Echo Silver, actually wasn’t that far off from where Amazon wants its digital brain to go in the long run, Reid said.
“Certainly our vision is to be more human like,” Reid said of Alexa. “That’s what we aspire to is to behave as a human would in an interaction which the Echo Silver did exactly that, so it was kind of spot on.”