Amazon Alexa is an intelligent personal assistant that makes use of machine learning and artificial intelligence. It is designed to be always on and woken with a voice command. It can perform web searches, create calendar events, modify to-do lists and notes, order products, play music, read Twitter posts, recite email, and perform dozens of other tasks. When you speak to Alexa it uses natural language learning and speech recognition to transmit your request to Amazon's servers, which is where the real work is done. Machine learning software processes the spoken request and sends a response back to Alexa, all in a matter of seconds.
It first made its debut in the Amazon Echo and the Amazon Echo Dot smart speakers which were being developed by the then Amazon Lab126 team. It could perform voice interaction, music playback, making to-do lists, setting your alarms, stream audio content, playing audiobooks, while also retrieving the weather, traffic, sports, and other real-time information. Alexa was also able to control several smart devices using itself as a home automation system. This went a step further by incorporating skills provided by third-party developers thereby extending its functions.
The Alexa team has seen growth from its humble beginnings to an active digital assistant that can be found in devices ranging from Amazon mobile apps on iOS or Android and Amazon Dash Wand.
Digital assistants like Amazon Alexa are leading the AI and machine learning revolution currently underway in consumer tech. We traditionally interact with computers through typing or touch, and up until recently, voice recognition was still just a fun concept.
The past decade has brought enormous leaps in machine learning and speech recognition, which has finally made voice commands viable for consumer products. Amazon and Alexa have jumped to the front of the pack by opening their API for integration into third-party apps and hardware.
One of the most used and widely herald parts of Alexa is its ability to integrate with third-party apps and hardware simply with the use of “Skills”. Amazon then started the “Works with Alexa” program that allows developers to get certified which means that their products have been tested to works with the digital assistant. But before developers can get this badge to use with their product, they first have to submit their apps for certification. To get into the program, a developer must first make sure their products satisfy the eligibility and product requirements in the Works with Alexa Program Guidelines. After this, they can register and submit their product for certification in the Works with Alexa console. If your product is certified, they can then use the Works with the Alexa badge per the trademark usage guidelines.
But what about the integration itself? How does it work? To explain this we must first start with understanding three key concepts. The first is the Wake word when users say ‘Alexa’ the device is then woken up. This puts Alexa into the listening mode to take instructions from users. But you are free to change this word to your preference. Next is the Invocation name which is used to trigger a specific skill. This is the name of the skill. Plus users can combine the invocation name with an action, command, or question. You have to note here that all custom skills need an invocation name to trigger or start it. Finally, we have the Utterance, this is basically what the user wants Alexa to perform. For example, the keyword "Turn on the coffee maker" is an utterance. Utterances are phrases the users will use when requesting Alexa. Alexa identifies the user’s intent from the given utterance and responds accordingly.
Now to the meat of how this all works, When an instruction is given, the Alexa enabled devices then send the user’s instruction to a cloud-based service called Alexa Voice Service (AVS). This is the brain of Alexa-enabled devices and performs all the complex operations such as Automatic Speech Recognition (ASR) and Natural Language Understanding (NLU).
Alexa Voice Service processes the response and identifies the user’s intent, then it makes the web service request to a third-party server if needed. This request is necessary if the Skills need to fetch information from an external service. Finally, the Alexa service sends the response back to Alexa and reads it to the users.
So is Alexa a practical solution? the short answer to this is yes. If you live in a fairly modern apartment you will find that you are surrounded by smart appliances. Even if you are in a strictly dumb-home environment you will find that once you start using Alexa to schedule events, reminders, appointments, and keep track of certain activities, the practicality goes up. This is made even more prominent when you add in 3rd Party skills that connect more of your ecosystem to Alexa for easy and quick exchange of information. After all, that’s why you get an assistant in the first place, to reduce your workload.
Even if you have a practical use for a digital assistant you are still trusting it with sensitive information about you and your lifestyle or even financial information. Here is where a lot of users have issues with Alexa and Alexa-enabled devices. Since the devices are usually internet-enabled, hackers can find some vulnerabilities to exploit. The same is true for any device but there are a few things you can do to safeguard yourself.
- Changing your wake word
- Be mindful of where you place your Alexa devices
- Turn off your microphone and camera when not in use
- Delete your Alexa voice recordings history
- Delete your Alexa voice recordings every day
- Use a strong Amazon Password
- Increase your Network Security
- Set up a pin for voice purchases
- Read the Privacy Policies and Adjust your privacy settings
- Don’t create and share skills that contain your personal information
While Alexa does contain security features that help secure your information. You still have to make a conscious effort to secure your Alexa-enabled device.
The Emergence of AI
The progression of AI and voice assistants we have seen over the years still leaves much to be debated about. Is the concept still just a concept or something that has matured enough to be both practical and necessary. Some might say we are not there yet and Alexa is just another gimmick companies’ such as Amazon are using to empty user’s wallets. Yes, some of us like the convenience of having Alexa do things for us without having to move or take part in the complex process. But as a personal assistant, Alexa is just the start of a long journey. The technology is still very new and has a lot of issues to work out in both recognizing a user intent and handling complex tasks. In a few years, maybe it will develop into something that you can not live without or makes life far easier but for now, it can be said to be just a convenience.
On the subject of AI and Voice Assistants, Alexa is not the only program out there. We will be taking a closer look at others in subsequent chapters