This is what comes next for Amazon's Alexa

Bob O'Donnell

Posts: 40   +1
Staff member
In context: Getting machines to understand natural language interactions is a lot harder than it first appeared. Many of us learned this to some degree in the early days of voice assistants when what seemed like very reasonable information requests often ended up being answered with frustratingly nonsensical responses. It turns out human beings are much better at understanding the subtle nuances (or very obvious differences) between what someone meant versus what they actually said.

Ever since Amazon introduced Alexa via its Echo smart speakers, I've longed for the day when I could just talk to devices and have them do what I wanted them to. Unfortunately, we're not there just yet, but we're getting somewhat closer.

One of the apparent issues when understanding natural language is that the structure and syntax of spoken language that we all understand intuitively often needs to be broken down into many different sub-components before they can be "understood" by machines.

That means the evolution of machine intelligence has been slower than many hoped because of the need to figure out the incremental steps necessary to really make sense of a given request. Even today, some of the most sophisticated natural language AI models are running into walls when it comes to doing any kind of simple reasoning that requires the kind of independent thinking that a young child can do.

On top of this, when it comes to smart home-focused devices—which is where voice-assistant powered machines continue to make their mark—there has been a frustrating wealth of incompatible standards that have made it physically challenging to get devices to work together.

Thankfully, the new Matter standard—which Amazon, Apple, Google and many others are planning to support—goes a long way towards solving this challenge. As a result, the very real problem of getting multiple devices from different vendors or even different smart home ecosystems to seamlessly work together may soon be little more than a distant memory.

With all this context in mind, the many different developer focused announcements that Amazon made at Alexa Live 2022 make even more sense. The company debuted the Connect Kit SDK for Matter. This extends a range of Amazon connection services to any Matter-capable device that supports it. This means that companies building smart home devices can leverage the work Amazon has done for critical features like cloud connectivity, OTA software updates, activity logging, metrics and more. The goal is to get a baseline of functionality that will encourage users to purchase and install multiple Matter-capable smart home products.

Of course, once devices are connected, they still need to communicate with each other in intelligent ways to provide more functionality. To address this, Amazon also unveiled the Alexa Ambient Home Dev Kit, which combines services and software APIs that allow multiple devices to work together easily and silently in the background.

Amazon and others call this "ambient computing", because it's meant to provide a mesh of essentially invisible computing services. The first version of this dev kit includes Home State APIs to do things like simultaneously put all your smart home devices into different modes (such as Sleep, Dinner Time, Home, etc.). Safety and Security APIs automatically send alarms from connected sensors, such as smoke alarms, to other connected devices and applications to ensure the alarms are noticed/heard. API for Credentials makes user setup across multiple devices easier by sharing Thread network credentials (a key part of the Matter standard), so that users don't have to do it more than once.

Speaking of easier setup, Amazon also announced plans to let its "Frustration-Free Setup" features be used by non-Amazon devices purchased in other retail stores. The company plans to leverage the Matter standard to enable this, emphasizing once again how important Matter is going to be for future devices.

For those working with voice interfaces, Amazon is working to enable some of the first real capabilities for an industry development called the Voice Interoperability Initiative, or VII.

First announced in 2019, VII is designed to let multiple voice assistants work together in a seamless way to provide more complex interactions. Amazon said it is working with Skullcandy and Native Voice to allow use of Alexa along with the "Hey Skullcandy" assistants and commands at the same time. For example, you can use "Hey Skullcandy" to enable voice-based control of headphone settings and media playback, but also ask Alexa for the latest news headlines and have them play back over the Skullcandy headphones.

The Alexa Voice Service (AVS) SDK 3.0 debuted to combine Alexa capabilities with the previously separate set Alexa Smart Screen SDK for generating smart screen-based responses. Using this would allow companies to potentially do things like have a voice-based interface with visual confirmations on screen or to create multi-modal interfaces that leverage both at the same time.

Finally, Amazon also unveiled a host of new Skills, Skill Development, Skill Promotion, and Skill education tools designed to help developers who want to create Skill "apps" for the Alexa ecosystem across a wide range of different devices, including TVs, PCs, tablets, smart displays, cars, and more. All told, it looks to be a comprehensive range of capabilities that should make a tangible difference for those who want to leverage the installed base of roughly 300 million Alexa-capable devices.

Unfortunately, browsing through multi-level screen-based menus, pushing numerous combinations of buttons, and trying to figure out the mindset of the engineers who designed the user interfaces is still the reality of many gadgets today. I, for one, look forward to the ability to do something like plug a new device in, tell it to connect my other devices, have it speak to me through some connected speaker to tell me that it did so (or if it didn't, what needs to be done to fix that), answer questions about what it can and can't do and how I can control it, and finally, keep me up-to-date verbally about any problems that may arise or new capabilities it acquires.

As these new tools and capabilities start to get deployed, the potential for significantly easier, voice-based control of a multitude of digital devices is getting tantalizingly closer.

Bob O'Donnell is the founder and chief analyst of TECHnalysis Research, LLC a technology consulting firm that provides strategic consulting and market research services to the technology industry and professional financial community. You can follow him on Twitter .

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waclark

Posts: 568   +356
I use Alexa devices quite a bit. I have it set up in 2 homes, each with their own set of smart devices that Alexa can control.

Overall, I'd give it a B+. For the most part it works and does what I need it to do which is turn lights on and off, set thermostat temps, play music etc.

The biggest complaint I have with my Echo devices is that they don't reconnect properly if my router has a hiccup. I use a TPLink, which is said to be compatible with Alexa. When we get a power glitch, the TPLink reboots and the Echo actually connects (I can see the IP address assigned and map that back to the TPLink management app) but Alexa thinks there is a problem and suggests rebooting the router. That doesn't work and you actually have to reboot the Echo. This makes using Echo/Alexa as a remote controller, less reliable/useful.

As for speech recognition, again about a B+ in my opinion. Sometimes it comes back with a "Hmmm, I don't know" when an easy question was asked. The big thing with voice commands is that I have multiple Echos and Alexa devices in the home and it's weird how they will all hear my command and sometimes multiple devices try to respond. Alexa is supposed to be able to deal with this through a setting in preferences, but I don't think it works all that well.

I do look forward to a time when you can speak naturally to Alexa or any digital assistant, in a more conversational tone, rather than commands.
 

Morphine Child

Posts: 156   +304
My friend has an Alexa, and one day at his house I tried to make it play Fat Girl by Steel Panther on any app imaginable and all my efforts were in vain.

It did, however, tried to sell me every single amazon service in existence... but I had to come home and ask google to play Fat Girl for me, which it did from first try. Rubbish devices as long as you have to put in manual labor in such menial tasks :p
 

Uncle Al

Posts: 9,088   +8,126
After less than 30 days of watching all the screw-ups I took both devices and chucked them in the garbage. Without an iron clad guarantee signed by the CEO, that prevented the company state and federal government from collecting, listening to, or using against me in a court of law I will never have one of those things in my home, place of business, or anywhere near me that I know of.

While privacy is not a guarantee of the Constitution, there is enough suggested that it should be and that would be one for a constitutional amendment. The sooner the better.
 

terzaerian

Posts: 1,488   +2,200
After less than 30 days of watching all the screw-ups I took both devices and chucked them in the garbage. Without an iron clad guarantee signed by the CEO, that prevented the company state and federal government from collecting, listening to, or using against me in a court of law I will never have one of those things in my home, place of business, or anywhere near me that I know of.

While privacy is not a guarantee of the Constitution, there is enough suggested that it should be and that would be one for a constitutional amendment. The sooner the better.
Right on. And there is, actually:

Fourth Amendment

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

It just needs to be interpreted broadly, and enforced. Good luck getting the corrupt plutocrats occupying D.C. to do that, though.
 

waclark

Posts: 568   +356
My friend has an Alexa, and one day at his house I tried to make it play Fat Girl by Steel Panther on any app imaginable and all my efforts were in vain.

It did, however, tried to sell me every single amazon service in existence... but I had to come home and ask google to play Fat Girl for me, which it did from first try. Rubbish devices as long as you have to put in manual labor in such menial tasks :p

You must have done something wrong. I just asked my original Echo device (tall black cylinder) to play this song. Fired right up and played off my Pandora account.

You may not realize it, but Amazon cannot play a song that it is not licensed for, hence why it pulled from my linked Pandora account, which is licensed for this song. You can't blame Alexa is you don't have the rights to play the song.
 

terzaerian

Posts: 1,488   +2,200
You must have done something wrong. I just asked my original Echo device (tall black cylinder) to play this song. Fired right up and played off my Pandora account.

You may not realize it, but Amazon cannot play a song that it is not licensed for, hence why it pulled from my linked Pandora account, which is licensed for this song. You can't blame Alexa is you don't have the rights to play the song.
This makes me imagine a cyberpunk version of Alexa that plays unlicensed songs and says naughty words and now I want it.
 

waclark

Posts: 568   +356
After less than 30 days of watching all the screw-ups I took both devices and chucked them in the garbage. Without an iron clad guarantee signed by the CEO, that prevented the company state and federal government from collecting, listening to, or using against me in a court of law I will never have one of those things in my home, place of business, or anywhere near me that I know of.

While privacy is not a guarantee of the Constitution, there is enough suggested that it should be and that would be one for a constitutional amendment. The sooner the better.

I'm pretty sure the 4th and the 5th will protect you. In some states it is illegal to record another person without their knowledge. I don't recall seeing anywhere in the Ts&Cs that Alexa is recording you and turning that over to the Police. Most states have one-party consent, if no one in the room is aware that Alexa is recording then it's not legal. Likewise the rest of the states have 2 party or ALL consent laws. Meaning that everyone in the room has to consent.
 

Eldritch

Posts: 465   +770
Had Alexa. Enjoyed novelty. Got frustrated. Turned off. Can't hang clothes on it. Useless junk.
 

Uncle Al

Posts: 9,088   +8,126
I'm pretty sure the 4th and the 5th will protect you. In some states it is illegal to record another person without their knowledge. I don't recall seeing anywhere in the Ts&Cs that Alexa is recording you and turning that over to the Police. Most states have one-party consent, if no one in the room is aware that Alexa is recording then it's not legal. Likewise the rest of the states have 2 party or ALL consent laws. Meaning that everyone in the room has to consent.

Unfortunately, there have been a number of cases where police have Sopena'd recordings from a number of these devices for cases and the host companies have surrendered them and in reviewing the included information with the equipment it does not disclose that it constantly records, saves, or surrenders those recordings, thus my statement still stands. It is and remains a violation of any right to privacy ....