Amazon Bets on an Empathetic Alexa

Amazon Bets on an Empathetic Alexa

HALF MOON BAY, Calif. — Alexa is multiplying. And that’s exactly what Amazon wants.

The smart speaker assistant, which debuted four years ago with the tech company’s Echo device, has gone from a handy gadget for streaming music to a ubiquitous home tool, able to do everything from switching on the lights to ordering an Uber.

Amazon announced recently that it had sold more than 100 million Alexa devices. And the company is all in. Last fall, it unveiled more than a dozen assorted devices that tap into the voice assistant, including a microwave and a wall clock.

Dave Limp, Amazon’s senior vice president for devices and services, said Alexa was “at scale” and had gained the most traction by making parts of daily life more convenient.

“We started with the home; we’re now adding the car,” Mr. Limp said at The New York Times’s New Work Summit last week.

He said that people find tasks that become habitual to them — often very different things.

“At least once a week, often every day, I get an email from somebody who just says that the Echo has changed their lives,” Mr. Limp said. “They might not have all their mobility, they might be a little elderly and they find companionship with Alexa, they find the ability to interact in a way they couldn’t before.”

Mr. Limp said that Alexa might feel somewhat human to some because of the “empathy” put into it.

“If you’re an adult and you say you’re depressed or suicidal,” he said, “or you’re potentially a victim of domestic abuse and you’re talking to Alexa in that way, we’ve talked to experts about what we should do in those situations. Alexa would try to connect you to a suicide hotline or domestic abuse hotlines.”

He said Alexa’s personality would continue to grow with the help of artificial intelligence and machine learning.

“Do we need to make her more conversational and less transactional over time? Yes,” he said. “We have thousands of people working on that right now. The goal would be that an assistant of your choice would have exactly the kind of conversation that we’re having right now.”

But do people want their conversations recorded and saved in the cloud? Mr. Limp said “utterances” were encrypted when stored, much as credit card data is. He said users could erase recordings if they wished.

“If you messed up and said something you didn’t want Amazon to have or anybody else in Amazon to see, you can delete those individual utterances. Or you can delete every utterance,” he said. “It’s very important to realize the reason we keep the data is to make the system better.”

Last year Amazon Echo accounted for 70 percent of installed smart speakers in the United States, while Google Home made up 24 percent and Apple HomePod 6 percent, according to a recent survey by Consumer Intelligence Research Partners. The analysis showed a sharp increase in the number of people with more than one smart speaker device, up to 35 percent last year from 18 percent in 2017.

Michael Levin, partner and co-founder of Consumer Intelligence Research Partners, attributed the increased adoption of smart speakers to less expensive devices introduced by Amazon and Google. “It also encouraged users to buy more than one,” he said.

Mr. Levin said his company’s research indicated that while more consumers were buying multiple devices, they were staying true to just one operating system. “Once an owner starts using one or another smart home system, and learns how to use it and accessorizes it, it’s awfully hard to switch,” he said. “This, of course, leaves Apple and other latecomers behind.”

That’s not to say that people are replacing their smartphones with their smart speakers.

“We see these increasingly as the center of a smart home or business, the stationary analog to mobile technology,” Mr. Levin said.

Micah Collins, the director of product management for Google Home, agreed that ambient devices like smart speakers and smart displays were complementary to personal devices like smartphones. “Users will interact with information and services through an ever increasing number of devices during the natural course of their daily lives,” Mr. Collins said.

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