If you woke up this morning and said anything to Amazon’s Alexa, hopefully “happy birthday” was in there somewhere, as the tech giant’s voice assistant turned 5 years old on Wednesday. And maybe “I’m sorry” would have been nice, too, if you, like us, doubted the technology when it was first introduced.
Five years ago, Alexa and the Amazon Echo smart speaker debuted, promising to revolutionize human-machine interaction. The cylindrical speaker didn’t exactly elicit 1994’s “what is internet?” style confusion, but we all seemed a little unsure about talking to and getting answers from an always-on device.
First of all, Echo was difficult to even get our hands on. Available at the time on an invitation-only basis, GeekWire pointed instead at the parody videos people were making to poke fun at Amazon and its new technology — “I’m a talking cylinder and my existence is totally meaningless.”
And we ended up having to turn to an early review by CNet after that outlet found an Echo on eBay.
“The big limitation right now is that beyond the weather and dictionary, Echo only seems to interface with Wikipedia and a few other data repositories (for jokes, for instance),” CNet wrote at the time.
TechCrunch dedicated several paragraphs to its first impression of Echo and Alexa on Nov. 6, 2014. The story was mostly a list of product specs — hardly a heralding of the dawn of AI speech connectivity — but, it also called Echo “a tad baffling, but also intriguing.”
Baffling and intriguing. In hindsight, that seems like a good summation of what living with Alexa has felt like for five years. GeekWire has certainly written hundreds of stories since then on the many iterations and innovations involving Alexa and Echo and the impact of the technology across the tech landscape.
The jokes haven’t stopped, though. “Saturday Night Live” famously got in on the act a couple years ago with a spoof about an Echo Silver device, designed for the loud-talking, hard-of-hearing greatest generation. And a developer managed to get Alexa’s voice into a flopping, plastic Big Mouth Billy Bass, and the makers of that novelty product made it a real thing.
But the voice assistant, and Amazon, are surely having the last laugh.
Amazon noted on Wednesday that Alexa only knew how to do 13 things on one device when she debuted. Today, Alexa has more than 100,000 skills from developers, tells jokes or reads the news in eight languages and seven language variants across 80 countries, and is available in hundreds of products from headphones to cars.
The company says 10,000 Amazonians now work on Alexa — read here what a few of them have to say about that experience — and customers interact with her billions of times each week. Over the course of five years, more than 100 million Alexa-enabled devices have been sold.
Rohit Prasad, Amazon VP and head scientist for Alexa AI, wrote about what the past five years have looked like — and what the next five could bring in conversational AI. Prasad called it a “tectonic shift in how customers interact with a myriad of services, find information on the web, control smart appliances, and connect with other people.”
When asked how old she was on Wednesday morning, Alexa responded from an Echo Dot by saying, “I finished my fifth trip around the sun and now I’m working on another one.”
Amazon is celebrating the occasion with deals on Alexa-enabled devices. You can also hear a special collaboration between the voice assistant and music producer Marshmello if you say, “Alexa, happy birthday” into an enabled device.
And of course there’s ice cream. Check out the Treasure Truck Instagram post below for details on how to win Ben & Jerry’s for a year, or some new Echo Buds.
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GIVEAWAY! We’re celebrating Alexa’s 5th Birthday! Two lucky winners will win a Year of Free @benandjerrys Ice Cream or the all new Echo Buds (Wireless Earbuds with Alexa). To Enter: Tag 2 friends and Share your happy birthday message with #AlexaHappyBirthday. Make sure you're following us and use #sweepstakes in your comment! Ends at 11AM PST tomorrow (11/7/19). We'll reply to the winner’s comment with instructions on how to claim the prize. NO PURCHASE NECESSARY. See Official Rules: http://amzn.to/Rules