Alexa is a real household name for everyone at this point. She’s the voice and brains behind our pick for the best smart speaker, the fourth-generation Echo (
But have you ever wondered how Alexa works? How does it get smarter and work with other devices? Or where will Amazon take the assistant in the future?
I sat down with two key people behind Alexa and Amazon’s Smart Home to find out more. Toni Reid, VP of Alexa Experience and Echo Devices, and Marja Koopmans, Director of Smart Home, gave me a deep dive into Alexa-related topics, from how the technology works to how it’s constantly evolving to make your life easier.
One of the first questions I get from friends and family alike is how these smart devices work.
“When you say the word ‘Alexa,’ it listens for it and it lights up. So once the client gives their request, you know, play music, set a timer and more, that voice processing goes to the cloud, to be identified.” Reid says.
That is the first step, and it is the key by which we have seen Amazon improve. Newer Echo devices are faster than older Echo devices to catch the wake word and get a response. That’s partly thanks to the processor on the device, which works to speed up these requests. Take your voice and transcribe to find out what you are asking. And Reid described the next steps as a domino effect. If it’s a simple request, that can happen on the device, but more legwork is required when requesting music or opening a third-party app. If you order a song from Spotify or Apple Music, it goes through partner technologies to generate the appropriate result.
And all this happens pretty fast. Since Amazon Alexa is cloud-based, you’ll need an internet connection.
Another interesting aspect that goes back to the beginning of the application is that Alexa understands how we, as humans, speak in different languages and places. And Reid noted that implementing a language, like Arabic earlier this year, takes time and starts with a lot of data collection.
“It’s not just about accents or the words that they use, but how they’ll actually ask for things. And so it’s a very important part of when we launch the device in a new place,” Reid explained.
Your Alexa conversations or requests are uploaded and you can view those transcripts, but you can also delete them after they’ve been used for the request. Amazon also offers a privacy tab within the Alexa app to handle these controls.
“The way Alexa is built with the service largely in the cloud, it allows us to roll out capabilities hourly if we want. So there’s a huge benefit to customers in that they’re getting that kind of improvement.” continues,” Reid explained.
As we’ve seen with recent hardware releases and with software releases, Alexa can do more than just tell you what the weather is, tell a story, or even crack a joke. An Echo Dot or 4th Gen Echo can be used to control connected devices like smart light bulbs or even a garage door through another device. The microphones that power Alexa are also used to listen for events that might be going on in your home.
Now, this broader idea is called “Ambient Computing”, as these devices can handle tasks or monitor without the need for you to make a request. A good comparison is having the pot ready to brew when you walk up to it in the morning. Amazon calls these hunches, in which Alexa can ask when she notices something might be going on, or “automated hunches,” the assistant can trigger the action.
For example, if you didn’t manually turn on the porch light at night or left a light on late at night when he’s in bed. Alexa can pick up on this and ask you if you want to turn that light on or off or even take the initiative and activate the feature on its own.
“She knows that a device is not in its usual state,” says Koopmans. And then she can take action, she can ask you, hey her, it looks like you didn’t turn on the porch light. Do you want me to do that for you?”
The great thing about any of these features is that they’re available on most Echo’s, even going back to the original Echo speaker from 2014. With both technology, we see that the lifespan of these devices can be shortened either by planned obsolescence or simply for not being able to handle software updates, and Amazon has mostly avoided it with Alexa.
The smart home world can be a messy mess, with different standards and tons of devices to choose from. Through skills like automatically identifying smart home devices and taking the guesswork out of setup, Amazon is trying to make this easier through Alexa.
“Ultimately, consumers just want it to work. So we’ve always been open and embrace all the standards and protocols it needs to work for customers,” Koopmans explained.
It is also a key point to expand the smart home: in this way you can use several sources to find a smart bulb, a plug or any other object with an internet connection.
That experience isn’t typically the case in smart home ecosystems right now: Apple’s HomeKit works with fewer devices than Google or Alexa. But with the latter, Koopmans made it clear that Amazon’s approach is mixed.
“What we really want to do is help customers simplify their lives,” says Koopmans. “As well as increasing comfort and peace of mind, whether or not you’re at home or away.”
The center of any conversation about Alexa is also the devices that Amazon’s smart assistant can use and there are several to choose from. The other key takeaway is that Alexa is more or less the same across all of these apart from specific hardware differences, for example some Echo devices have a screen while others are strictly speakers. In our tests on various models, Alexa always responds quickly, regardless of the speaker you’re using. In addition, it has managed to offer faster answers to questions than that of the Google Assistant.
If you want a device that can pair Alexa voice responses with images, be used for video calls, or even stream movies and TV shows, the Echo Show 8 is a good fit. The 8-inch screen is enough for a smart display and provides an expansive view for consuming content. It also offers excellent sound. The two most expensive Alexa displays, the Show 10 and Show 15, are a bit more unique. The Show 10 uses a camera to rotate the screen to face you, which is surprisingly useful, and the Show 15 hangs on your wall like a family center of sorts.
It’s worth noting that Alexa isn’t just limited to the Echo, but to the entire suite of devices: Fire TV, tablets, and headphones.
I have high hopes for what the future of Alexa and smart homes may hold. And after my conversation with Reid and Koopmans, it’s clear they want Alexa to work for you and follow through on the promise of a more open ecosystem that works with all major brands.
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