For years, Alexa has been synonymous with virtual assistants that can interact with users and do tasks on their behalf.
Now Amazon is trying to keep pace with a new wave of conversational AI tools that have accelerated the artificial intelligence arms race in the tech industry and rapidly reshaped what consumers may expect from their tech products.
Amazon’s goal is to use AI “to create this great personal assistant,” said Dave Limp, senior VP of devices and services, in a recent interview with CNN. “We’ve been using all forms of AI for a long time, but now that we see this emergence of generative AI, we can accelerate that vision even faster.”
Generative AI refers to a type of AI that can create new content, such as text and images, in response to user prompts. Limp did not elaborate on how generative AI could be used in Alexa products, but there are clear possibilities.
In theory, this technology could one day help Alexa have more natural conversations with users, answer more complex questions, and be more creative by telling stories or making up song lyrics in seconds. It could also enable more personalized interactions, allowing the assistant to learn about the device owner’s interests, preferences and better tailor its responses to each person.
“We’re not done and won’t be done until Alexa is as good or better than the ‘Star Trek’ computer,” Limp said. “And to be able to do that, it has to be conversational. It has to know all. It has to be the true source of knowledge for everything.”
Alexa launched nearly a decade ago and, along with Siri, Cortana and other voice assistants, seemed poised to change the way people interacted with technology. But the viral success of ChatGPT has arguably accomplished that faster and across a wider range of everyday products.
The effort to continue updating the technology that powers Alexa comes at a difficult moment for Amazon. Like other Big Tech companies, Amazon is now slashing staff and shelving products in an urgent effort to cut costs amid broader economic uncertainty. The Alexa division has not escaped unscathed.
Amazon confirmed plans in January to lay off more than 18,000 employees as the global economic outlook continued to worsen. In March, the company said about 9,000 more jobs would be impacted. Limp said his division lost about 2,000 people, about half of which were from the Alexa team.
Amazon also shut down some of the products it spun up earlier in the pandemic, such as its wearable fitness brand Halo, which allowed users to ask Alexa questions about their health and wellness. Limp said the company also shelved some “more risky” projects. “I wouldn’t doubt we’ll dust them off at some point and bring them back,” he said. “We’re still taking a lot of risks in this organization.”
But Limp said Alexa remains a “North Star” for his division. “To give you a sense, there’s still thousands and thousands of people working on Alexa,” he said.
Amazon is indeed still investing in Alexa and its related Echo smart speaker lineup. Last week, the company unveiled several new products, including the US$39.99 Echo Pop and the $89.99 Echo Show 5, its smart speaker with a screen. While the products feature incremental updates, Limp said Amazon’s current lineup contains hints of what’s to come with its AI efforts, beyond generative AI.
For example, if Alexa is enabled on an Echo Show, where it can rotate and follow users around the room, “you’ll see glimmers of where it’s going over the next months and years,” Limp said.
But generative AI remains a key focus for the company. Amazon CEO Andy Jassy said in a letter to shareholders in April that the company is focused on “investing heavily” in the technology “across all of our consumer, seller, brand, and creator experiences.”
The company is reportedly working on adding ChatGPT-like search capabilities for its e-commerce store. Amazon is also rumoured to be planning to use generative AI to bring conversational language to a home robot.
While Limp didn’t comment on the report, he said the end goal has long been for Alexa to communicate with users in a fluid, natural way, whether it’s through an Echo device or other products such as its robotic dog, Astro.
The concept remains a “hard technical challenge,” he said, but one that is “more tractable” with generative AI. “There’s still some hard corner cases and things to work out,” he said.