How does Alexa work? We interviewed Amazon to find out

Alexa is a real household name at this point. She is the voice and intelligence behind our top pick for a smart speaker (4th Generation Echo) and smart screen (Echo Show 8), and an essential part of many smart home products.

But have you ever wondered how Alexa works? How does she get smarter and work with many other gadgets? Or where might Amazon want to take the assistant in the future?

You can buy a smart speaker and wonder the assistant, but I sat down with the two key people behind Amazon’s Alexa and Smart Home to learn more. Toni Reid, VP of Alexa Experience and Echo Devices, and Marja Koopmans, Director of Smart Homes, helped me dive deeper into everything Alexa, from how the technology works to how it’s constantly evolving. to make your life easier.

Jacob Krol / CNN

One of the first questions I get from friends and family members is how these smart devices work and how Alexa can be a real mind tool for people who aren’t. is technology.

“When you say the word wake, it hears it, lights up, and travels to the cloud. So once the customer states their wish, you know, broadcast the CNN, set the timer, etc., the voice processing goes to the cloud, to be transcribed,” Reid said. .

That’s the first step, and it’s the big one that we’ve seen Amazon improve on. More recent Echo devices, like 4th generation model, which is faster than older Echos in choosing wake words and getting a response back. That’s partly thanks to the on-device processor, which works to speed up these requests. It takes your voice and transcribes it to figure out what you’re asking. And Reid described the following steps as a domino effect. If it’s a simple request, it can happen on device, but you need to practice more when requesting music or opening a third-party skill. If you’re requesting a song from Spotify or Apple Music, that song will go through the partners’ technology to produce a match.

And this all happens pretty quickly so you get reasonably quick results. There can be hiccups at times, but Alexa has taken care of that, especially with more frequent tasks like the timer or the weather. Are from Amazon’s Alexa cloud-based, you will need an internet connection.

Another neat aspect that goes back to the beginning of the request is that Alexa understands how we as humans speak across different languages ​​and locales. And Reid notes that rolling out a language — like Arabic earlier this year — takes time and starts with collecting a lot of data.

“It’s not just the accent or the words they use, it’s how they really ask for things. And so that’s a really important part of when we’re launching a new language,” explains Reid.

Privacy is also at the heart of the Alexa experience; Reid and Koopmans just noted that. Your chats or requests with Alexa are uploaded and you can view those records, but you can also delete them once they have been used for their request. Amazon also provides a privacy tab in the Alexa app to handle these controls.

“The way Alexa is built with the service primarily in the cloud, it allows us to deploy capabilities hourly if we want to. So there’s a big benefit to the customer that they get that continuous improvement,” explains Reid.

Echo Dot (3rd Generation)

As we’ve seen in recent hardware launches and with software implementations, Alexa can do more than tell you what the weather is like, tell a story or even play a game. joke. One Echo Dot or one Echo 4th Generation can be used to control connected devices, like a smart light bulb or even a garage door, through another device. Alexa powered microphones are also used to listen for possible events in your home.

This broader idea is now known as “Ambient Computing,” where these devices can handle tasks or monitor without your asking. A good comparison is to have your pot of coffee ready when you get there in the morning. Amazon calls these Premonitions, where Alexa can ask you when it notices something might happen, or with “automatic hunches,” the assistant can trigger an action.

For example, if you don’t manually turn on the porch light at night, or leave it on late at night when you’re going to bed. Alexa can recognize this and ask you if you want to turn that light on or off, or even take the initiative and trigger the action itself.

“She had a hunch that a device was not in its normal state, Koopmans said. “And then she might act, she might ask you, Hey, looks like you didn’t turn on the porch light. Do you want me to do it, or when you have automatic tasks turned on, she will do it for you”.

It’s an example of Alexa working for you or making life easier. Koopmans notes that Alexa is currently starting one of four smart home actions, and she doubts that number will increase in the future. Another way Alexa can work with you is through Alexa Guard. With this feature, the microphone will listen for different events like broken glass, a dog barking or even a smoke alarm going off and it can alert you.

The nice thing with any of these features is that they’re available on most Echos, even dating back to the original Echo speakers from 2014. So with many technologies, we’ve found that longevity. of these devices can drop due to planned obsolescence or just an inability to handle software updates, and Amazon has largely avoided that with Alexa.

The smart home world can be a mess, with different standards and countless devices to choose from. Through capabilities like automatically recognizing smart home devices and taking the guesswork out of the setup process, Amazon is trying to make this easier. Alexa.

“Ultimately, consumers just want it to work. So we are always open and accepting of all standards and protocols because it just needs to work for the customer,” explains Koopmans. She talked about the “fail-free setup,” in which your Alexa and Echo will automatically add a device like a smart light once you plug it in. Alexa’s method is to handle connections and then talk about what you can do with that device.

That’s also an important point for smart home expansion – this way you can use a variety of sources to find the right device for you, whether it’s a smart garage door opener , one Wyze light bulbs, Belkin Wemo . smart plugor even a connected coffee machine.

That experience isn’t typical across smart home ecosystems right now – Apple’s HomeKit works with fewer devices than Google or Alexa. But with the latter, Koopmans is clear that Amazon’s approach is heterogeneous.

“If it turns out to be uniform and like a walled garden, then I don’t think the smart home will reach its full potential,” Koopmans began. She continued that she has all sorts of devices in her smart home, and Alexa lets you connect to most of them.

Yes, you can choose one Amazon Smart Thermostatbut one Nest Thermostat Can also be controlled by Alexa. Similarly, you can get a bunch of Echo smart speakers, but if you focus more on sound quality, you can get Sonos smart speaker and it will work with Alexa.

“What we really want to do is help our customers simplify their lives. And that’s just taking things off your to-do list. ‘ said Koopmans. “As well as increased convenience and increased peace of mind whether you are at home or away.”

Jacob Krol / CNN

The focus of any conversation about Alexa is also the devices you can use Amazon’s smart assistant with, and there are a number of devices to choose from. The other important point is that Alexa is pretty much the same in these respects aside from specific hardware differences – for example, some Echo devices have screens, while others are purely speakers. In our testing on different models, Alexa was always responsive no matter what speaker you’re using. Furthermore, she managed to give answers to questions faster than the Google Assistant’s response.

If you’re brand new to the Echo or Alexa space, the Echo Dot is not only affordable under $50, it offers solid sound, responds to Alexa quickly, and can be used to help build build a smart home. If you have small children at home, I recommend purchasing one of the Echo Dot Kids variants that have the same core features but with tiger or panda-like paintwork. And, if you care about sound, the Echo Dot is louder and offers a richer sound field than the Nest Mini.

Those looking for a more complete package with powerful audio and smart home connectivity should opt for the full-sized one. Echo 4th Generation. It can help to connect more smart home devices thanks to Zigbee (a popular smart home standard) built in. It’s louder than a HomePod Mini or a Nest Audio speaker.

If you want a device that can pair Alexa voice responses with pictures, be used for video calls, or even for streaming movies and TV shows, Echo Show 8 is a nice choice. The 8-inch screen is plenty for a smart display and offers a sweeping view for content consumption. It also offers great sound. The two most expensive Alexa displays – Display 10 and Display 15 – a little more unique. The Show 10 uses a camera to rotate the screen towards you, which is handy, and the Show 15 hangs on your wall like a home hub.

It’s worth noting that Alexa isn’t just limited to Echos, but the full set of devices – Fire TVs, Tablets, headphones, and even smart glasses included.

I have high hopes for what the future of Alexa and smart homes can bring. And after my conversation with Reid and Koopmans, it became clear that they wanted Alexa to work for you with the least amount of hassle and deliver the promise of a more open ecosystem that works with all major players. .

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