Amazon’s AI assistant Alexa is the voice behind the original smart speaker and the most popular choice in U.S. homes today, but with a voice interface it can sometimes be tough to know what’s worth doing, or even possible.
This holiday season, we’ve compiled some of Alexa’s most popular and advanced features to give you a taste of what you can do with your new Echo smart speaker or smart display.
This collection of features makes up the majority of tasks the average person uses an AI assistant for. You can do things like:
- Make a phone or video call
- Check the weather
- Treat Echo speakers like a home intercom
- Play music
- Get the news
- Set a timer
- Create a calendar event
- Add to your shopping list
- Order from Amazon.com
- Find out when your next Amazon order will arrive
For $1 you can also add the voice of Samuel L. Jackson to respond when you do things like set a timer, get the weather, or play music. Households that speak more than one language can choose a multilingual option so Alexa can respond to both Spanish and English, for example.
You don’t need to worry about direct voice commands because the natural language models Alexa uses are built to understand lots of ways users might phrase questions and express desires.
For more on how to get started, you can check the Get Started user guide or say “Alexa, what can you do?”
Activate Alexa Guard
Alexa Guard was introduced to the world in 2018 to let the Echo speaker alert homeowners or their alarm system provider to the sound of broken glass or smoke alarms. This year, Alexa Guard got even better at detecting events in the home with the ability to recognize the sound of footsteps, doors opening or closing, and — for some reason — the sound of chopping on a cutting board.
Don’t be surprised if this approach to event detection — together with Ring video doorbells and alarm systems — grows to include more events, related and unrelated to security.
AI for detecting frustration in a user’s voice rolled out this fall, and Amazon AI researchers are also working on detecting emotions like happiness and sadness.
Defend your privacy
Privacy has emerged as a priority for a lot of people, especially when it comes to juggernaut companies whose business strategies involve making predictions from your personal data. But concurrent with fears of mass government and corporate surveillance, smart speaker and smart display categories have become some of the most popular consumer electronics on Earth, a trend driven by dropping word error rates and great improvement in far-field voice recognition.
The two trends seemed to converge this year with reports that third parties hired to improve AI assistants and label data were hearing the intimate, deeply personal details of users’ lives.
As a matter of course, each exchange spoken after the “Hey Alexa” phrase is recorded and converted into text that’s transformed into an action. Whether and how text is reviewed for training purposes is another matter.
In response to public outcry over privacy infringements, Amazon in May introduced voice commands like “Alexa, delete what I just said” and “Alexa, delete what I said today.”
In August, Amazon gave users the choice to disable human review of voice recordings. This fall, the company introduced the Privacy Hub to make it easier to review or automatically delete voice recordings on a three-month or 18-month basis. The hub also gives users a way to control permissions granted to smart home devices and Alexa Skills.
Gathering data on a three- to 18-month basis allows the company to observe seasonal trends, Alexa chief scientist Rohit Prasad told VentureBeat shortly after Amazon rolled out its new approach to voice recordings in September.
Follow your favorite musicians
The Echo smart speaker became a favorite in U.S. households because of its ability to hear your voice across the room and do things like seamlessly set a timer, but the true killer app has always been music.
That’s why it was a big deal last year when Amazon introduced the ability for you to get notifications through your Echo speaker when a favorite artist releases an album or single.
New Release Notifications is far from the latest AI wizardry or natural language model breakthrough, but knowing when that new album drops is the definition of delight.
Music lovers can also set alarms using their favorite music streaming service.
Not everything you do with Alexa comes from Amazon. There’s an entire universe of Skills and voice apps for Alexa from third-party developers.
With the Echo Show, some Skills utilize the Alexa Presentation Language to make visual experiences.
In September, Alexa passed the 100,000 voice app milestone. Granted, the great majority of these are garbage, but there are also gems like Jeopardy! or choose-your-own-adventure games like Magic Door. The Maury Show even has a voice app.
A glance at the Alexa Skills Store will help determine what fits your interests since it does a good job of categorizing Skills and highlighting popular voice apps.
This summer, Amazon rolled out Alexa Conversations, a way to batch Skills together into cohesive experiences to, for example, reserve seats at a restaurant, buy movie tickets, and schedule arrangements with a ride-sharing app. Conversations are designed to cut these kinds of activities down from dozens of steps to just a few. Combining this with machine learning to pair Skills in multi-turn dialogue is what Amazon VP David Limp calls the “holy grail of voice science.” It’s more a concept today than something you can expect to interact with in your daily life, but it gives you a sense of how the Alexa team is thinking.
Make Alexa Skills with Blueprints
The Alexa Skills Store has lots of noteworthy developer creations, but some things deserve a personal touch. Enter Blueprints, a way for homeowners to make their own Alexa Skills without code.
These templates range from a chore chart to a Skill that lets Airbnb guests or pet sitters ask common questions. You can even make a Skill for trivia about a family member. Each Blueprint template is designed to be created in a matter of minutes.
Amazon introduced Alexa for Business Blueprints earlier this year to let companies create personalized Skills for employees or customers.
Pay bills or make donations
Every AI assistant wants to be more than a basic bot. They want to become like a trusted friend, ready to tell you a silly joke or talk and capable of all matter of compute actions. A big one introduced in October: Alexa can now pay your bills with Amazon Pay and bill management platform Paymentus. You can also get notifications when you’ve got a water or electricity bill payment coming up.
In other money movement services, Alexa got the ability to make donations to charitable organizations and U.S. presidential candidates this year.
Check your email
This is one of those extremely useful ideas people tend to forget is possible.
Say “Alexa, check my email” to get a rundown of emails perceived to be important from the past 24 hours. You can also delete, reply to, or flag an email with voice alone. Say “Alexa, did I get an email from [contact]?” and set a notification so your Echo speaker and Alexa can let you know when you get a response you’ve been waiting for.
Email with Alexa works with major providers like Gmail, Outlook, Hotmail, and Live.com.
An easy way to recognize the limitations of natural language AI today is to try to carry on a conversation with your assistant. Despite great advances in word error rate reductions and other breakthroughs in recent years, assistants like Alexa are still rather limited in their ability to talk like humans. In 2017, Amazon started the Alexa Prize, a competition for teams of student computer scientists to create AI capable of chatting for 20 minutes. Thus far, the top-performing bots can last roughly 10 minutes.
To make things more conversational now, Alexa offers Follow Up Mode so you can continue asking questions after an initial query response in which the “Alexa” wake word is used.
As part of the company’s larger effort to get its question-answering capabilities to surpass the Skills of other assistants — like Siri, Cortana, and Google Assistant — Amazon made Alexa Answers generally available earlier this year.
Alexa Answers allows users to answer queries Alexa was unable to accurately field. Hundreds of thousands of answers have already been shared with millions of Echo users, a company spokesperson told VentureBeat, but as Kyle Wiggers discovered earlier this year, crowdsourcing this effort has drawbacks.
An AI assistant “IQ test” composed of hundreds of questions found Alexa to be lacking when compared with other AI assistants. Analysis related to questions about popular prescription medicine found similar results.
Alexa can set a timer for you or share the weather forecast, but in order to expand adoption rates, enable custom voice commands, and allow a single voice command to do multiple things, both Amazon and Google have introduced Routines.
For example, you can make an “Alexa, I’m home” Routine that turns on the lights, plays a news summary, and rattles off your to-do list, or you can make an “Alexa, it’s bedtime” Routine that turns off all your smart home appliances.
Location-based Routines are a great way to ensure your smart home devices shut off when you walk out the door, for example, without your needing to say anything. Email updates and Skills became attached to Routines this spring, and geofenced location-based Routines arrived before the holidays a year ago.
The purpose of Routines is to make assistants not only more powerful, but part of your daily habits to improve adoption rates.
In September, Amazon introduced “Routine recommendations“, a way for the assistant to suggest adding certain actions to the exchanges you typically carry out. For example, if you tend to check the weather in the morning, Alexa might suggest you also play music. As simple as this sounds, Routine recommendations that feed insights from Amazon’s wider array of recommendation engines could become a smart way to automate habitual use cases.
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