Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Amazon Alexa

Imagine two worlds, Earth-One and Earth-Two. Earth One is a world without Voice Assistants while Earth-Two has Voice Assistants in every device. It is obvious which would be more exciting to live in. Less than a decade ago we were Earth-One but now we are well on our way to being Earth-Two. 

Voice Assistants are pretty much a part of our lives. What they can help us with goes from the mundane, like checking the weather or reciting a recipe, to the amazing, like controlling our homes, our cars, and entertaining us. Voice Assistants are improving themselves on a yearly basis in order to make our lives easier and efficient and many companies have jumped on board to see who can make the best Voice Assistant. Amazon is the leader and, some might argue, the catalyst to the modern voice first revolution and it all started with Amazon Alexa. We are going back to Alexa’s early days, show you where she is now, and tell you what is expected from her in the future.

At the beginning

According to David Limp, Amazon’s senior vice president who was responsible for overseeing the development of Alexa, the voice assistant was inspired by science fiction. He said it was the aim of Alexa’s creators to reinvent the conversational computer that was on Star Trek’s Starship Enterprise.

On November 6, 2014, Amazon made Alexa available with 130 skills on its first Echo device to invited Amazon Prime members. At that time it was just basically a device that could control music. The following year in June 2015 Alexa and Echo were made available to the general public. 

In 2017 Amazon Alexa started gaining serious traction as Alexa could now be found on third-party products from companies like Samsung and LG. Amazon announced they had launched developer tools in order to allow device manufacturers to build commercial products powered by Alexa. Individual developers and companies could now use these tools to add a version of Alexa to the devices they were manufacturing. Some of Alexa’s capabilities that could be embedded into these devices were content streaming, weather reports, and a number of other Alexa Skills. This was the first time Amazon allowed outside developers and companies to add to Alexa.

In 2018 Amazon went all out, they announced 70 new products including new Echo Auto, Echo Show, Echo Dot, and Fire TV Recast. Alexa even had new features such as new music release notification, email management, step-by-step cooking, location-based routines, and Guard. Amazon also released Alexa Presentation Language or APL which allows you to build interactive voice experiences that include graphics, images, slideshows, and video, and customize them for various types of devices.

In September of 2018 Alexa had 50,000 skills, in December they had 70,000 skills and in January 2019 they had 80,000 skills.

It has never been a secret that customers of voice assistants have an issue with privacy and Alexa was facing some of these criticisms and concerns. In September 2019, perhaps in response to these concerns, Amazon decided to focus its updates around privacy. 

Amazon decided for 2020 it was time to improve its position in the smart home market with new Echo Speakers and Echo Show Display, connecting over 140,000 smart home devices and having over 100 million Alexa-compatible devices. Alexa also had a new feature that allows it to trigger routines based on certain sounds like a dog barking or a crying baby.

Where we are today

Since 2014 Alexa has come a long way, from being only on the Amazon Echo device to now being on millions of devices whether it be devices in our homes like washing machines, TVs, etc., or even on our phones or in our cars.

In the present world Alexa is capable of doing a lot, perhaps way more than what was thought possible in 2014. With a voice command, Alexa can play games with us, tell us jokes or interesting facts, control smart home devices, do shopping, set alarms, play music, answer questions, and much more. While it is quite obvious that Alexa has a lot of capabilities and use, a recent survey showed that most persons are not using Alexa to her fullest potential. 

Alexa can be found on many devices from third-party manufactures and also on almost any device from Amazon however, Alexa is more known to be on Echo devices. Ever since Alexa was launched along with Amazon Echo they have stayed close and persons sometimes think Echo devices are actually Alexa. The availability of Alexa on most devices you use allows you to have access to the Voice Assistant whether it be at school, work, vacation, or home.

Amazon Alexa also has something known as Alexa Skills. Skills for Alexa is similar to apps for your smartphone, your phone comes with preinstalled apps that have various capabilities, and if you something new or different you will have to install another app. Alexa Skills allows you to customize your experience with Alexa by adding different functions and features. Skills are a way you can teach Alexa a new ability and every time you enable a skill you are essentially teaching Alexa something new. Just like apps, some skills are free and others require you to either pay a subscription or a one-time fee. All the tasks Alexa does are made possible by one skill or another, Alexa currently has over 100,000 of these skills. 

Many companies and individual developers have already or are currently making use of Alexa’s Skills. With the Spotify skill, you can connect Alexa directly to Spotify and ask your Echo device to play a song, album, playlist, or podcast of your choosing. 

Alexa also has a skill that can help persons who have an issue with sleeping. You can ask Alexa to play a sound from nature for example a waterfall or another sound from nature. With this skill, you have 100 different sounds you can choose from.

Other skills include news or weather updates to keep you in the know. You can enable an ESPN skill that gives you access to hourly sports updates, popular ESPN talk shows, and ESPN radio. For the weather skill, you can get frequent updates on the weather like temperature, rainfall statistics, and even Air Quality Index.

You can also use Alexa to make calls and send and receive text messages all with the use of only voice commands. Alexa also has a Drop-In feature that allows you to use Alexa as an intercom. You can say “drop in on living room” or “drop in on kitchen” and host conversations between devices or Alexa connects. You can also use this feature with your neighbors as long as you both gave permission to each other to ‘drop-in.’

With Alexa Routine you can have Alexa carry out certain actions by using a trigger phrase or event. You can have Alexa close the doors and turn off the lights when she senses that you are leaving the house. You can also have a “goodnight” routine where she puts your phone on silent, lock the doors, turn off the lights and play sleep sounds.

The truth is what you can do with Alexa’s capabilities are vast. Alexa has the potential to make your entire life better and free up space on your schedule. She also has your back and can remind you of events, birthdays, appointments, and calls to make just in case you forgot. She can also keep you up to date with all the current activities going on around the world in order to ensure that you are not left out.

With the large number of individuals developing Alexa and with a massive budget provided by Amazon there is absolutely no doubt that Alexa will continue to improve. 

Where we are going

We humans have always been impatient to know “What is the next big thing? Where is today’s tech going to be in the next 5 or 10 years?” When it comes to Alexa it’s no different, we all want to know “What will Amazon release next? What will Alexa be capable of in the next 5 years?” The truth is no one really knows, all we can do is predict and predict we will.

With past and present trends, we can come up with reasonable predictions on where or what Alexa might be in the future.

Alexa will be in more homes. Business Insider estimates that around 500 million smart speakers will be in US  homes by 2024 of and most of them will be powered by Amazon Alexa. This is perhaps the safest prediction one can make. Millions of individuals worldwide are buying more and more Alexa-enabled devices and many of them for the first time. Many more individuals are realizing that it is easier to use voice to control their devices than any other means.

Amazon is focusing on making the smart home smarter as they have and are still working to make it easier for third-party developers to make their devices Alexa-compatible. They have even brought down the price of the chipset and backend support to an all-time low of $4.

In an interview with MIT Technology Review, Rohit Prasad, Alexa’s head scientist, says that the goal is to get Alexa to engage in proactive interactions. They want to make Alexa anticipate what the user may want instead of waiting for the user to request it. The advantages of Alexa being able to do this efficiently would be limitless. You could simply start a conversation by asking Alexa to book a plane ticket and Alexa would ask if you would like to book a hotel and a taxi or Uber. 

In order to pull this off, however, Alexa will need more information about the users such as likes and dislikes. Alexa would have to be smarter, much smarter. Through interactions with the user, the A.I. will have an understanding of what skills the individual is more likely to use and at what time. If a large majority of Alexa users book a hotel and Uber after booking a flight Alexa will suggest those options to you when you book a flight. Another interesting thing is that Alexa would have to be smart enough to know what time to book the Uber. For example, you have a five hours flight, Alexa will know this and book the Uber to arrive five hours after you depart. Alexa may also have the ability to change the time the Uber should arrive in the event of a delay. Prasad’s team is already working on this technology to make it a reality in the near future.

Rohit Prasad believes that could be more efficient if it had a body. He believes that Alexa could be better by having a body and eyes so that it could explore the world. Giving Alexa a body could make it understand humans better, their routines, where furniture and other pieces of technology are located in the home. A huge advantage is that Alexa could help you with manual tasks like cooking, cleaning, and organizing things around the home. He believes this way Alexa will become less of an assistant and more of a companion.

Alexa has come a long way, at first, it was merely a device that controlled our music and now we are looking at the possibility of it guessing what we will need. Advancements in technology have always surprised us and there is no doubt that it will continue to surprise us. 

What we think is impossible today, maybe the norm tomorrow.

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