Amazon is Just Getting Started With Alexa/Echo

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The Amazon Alexa AI and the associated hardware, the Echo and the Dot, are pretty amazing devices. But they’re still in their infancy. We can expect the concepts and technology to continuously grow over the coming years.

So what’s next for Amazon’s Echo (and even Alphabet’s Google Home)? Would you believe … pulling off my shoe … making phone calls? The Street has the story in a little more visible detail, derived from the paywall WSJ story it links to. “Amazon Echo and Google Home May Soon Be Able to Make Phone Calls.” There are some details to work out, such as privacy and emergency services. But it looks to be coming in 2017.

Speaking of Amazon, in a recent interview, Jeff Bezos had some interesting things to say about the Alexa/Echo technology. In an interview with Billboard, Stephen Witt asked a leading question: “If you succeed, you’ll have placed an Amazon cash register in every house in the country.” The response by Bezos was fascinating and informative. It’s not just about sales. It’s learning how people speak and what their needs are. Bezos:

It’s not about that. For sure, if you have a 2-year-old and you see that you’re running low on diapers, we want to make that easy for you. But voice interface is only going to take you so far on shopping. It’s good for reordering consumables, where you don’t have to make a lot of choices, but most online shopping is going to be facilitated by having a display. Alexa is primarily about identifying tasks in the household that would be improved by voice. Music is one. Another is home automation. So, you can say, “Alexa, turn off all the lights in the house.” “Alexa, turn the temperature up two degrees.” That’s really an amazing thing to be able to do.

Our TMO observations are that the Amazon Dot has been a much more effective home automation hub than Apple’s offerings. But then, Apple’s home automation vision puts a very high priority on security while, for Amazon, the focus is convenience.

For more about the relative capabilities of SIri and Alexa, see this terrific article by our Jeff Butts. “Who’s More Intelligent, Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa?

Today, Amazon has taken the early lead. As Jeff Butt’s writes: “The race certainly isn’t over, but Alexa is in the lead for the time being.” What say you, Siri?

Siri on Alexa

Next page: The news debris for the week of February 13th. Welcome home, traveler!

7 thoughts on “Amazon is Just Getting Started With Alexa/Echo

  • Haven’t seen any articles in the last few months proclaiming Apple’s entry into electric vehicle production. Remember when that was the big discussion and everyone was “sure” Apple would produce one? Maybe they discovered vehicle production’s expense wouldn’t generate the margins they need. Clearly, nobody is talking about it.

    Apple’s focus on AR instead of VR is interesting. VR requires more horsepower than the consumer-oriented devices ( i.e. smartphones ) Apple favors, so its selection allows them to augment their sales leader, the iPhone. Augmenting iPhone capabilities seems to be Apple’s strategy recently with new products ( i.e. watch ). Neither AR nor VR are considered mainstream yet( like TVs, smartphones, vehicles, etc. ) and typically Apple introduces new products to improving on existing. Thanks for the article and links John. Adam’s article on APFS gave me some hope it will be implemented correctly and with appropriate QA testing.

  • John:

    Unfortunately, work keeps me from my usual perusal of your PD offerings this week, as well as from a satisfactory deep dive into some of the points raised.

    One observation might suffice to address a number of related issues, namely that of the capability comparisons between Alexa and Siri. Given the recent and continued rise in the chorus of criticism levelled at a number of Apple products, whatever one might think of any of the merits of any specific criticism, it is important not conflate, for example, end product performance and the strategy behind product development. This is important, not only because these are distinct albeit related issues, but because Apple’s strategy and business model imposes specific constraints on product behaviour and capability that are not universal to the industry. AI is a case in point, but it applies to so-called ‘smart devices’ and products writ large.

    To date, Apple’s business model of consumer privacy protection as a foundation and starting point for developing products whose performance is user information dependent, like AI and other ‘smart devices’, is an outlier. Not only does its philosophical premise differ fundamentally from that of user information as the product and driver of company profit, but it has implications for how a product will behave, and perforce affect product performance.

    Products that harvest personal information on the user, even when in quiet or stealth mode, information that a user may not even be aware of or have knowingly consented to providing, that will almost miraculously improve that product’s user-centric performance, might show both near-term superior performance and yield market advantages, but in the absence of a coherent, robust and industry leading security strategy, will expose their users to vulnerabilities whose unacceptability will only be unmasked once those systems are breached. To date, the history of product development suggests that it is far more difficult to retroactively apply security countermeasures to a finished product whose infrastructure is fundamentally non-secure than it is to build a product whose infrastructure is based on an entirely different philosophy that both eschews inherent vulnerability, on the one hand, and incorporates industry leading countermeasures and their projected trajectories, on the other.

    Amazon’s AI gathers user information as a product that is sent, on the back end, to servers for analysis and that, in turn, is used to generate more sales as a feature of product performance. Siri, on the other hand, does not share user information centrally, for any purpose, which does constrain the computational power applied to individual user behaviour and the contextual accuracy of AI performance.

    The gamble for all stakeholders, companies and consumers alike, subscribing to the former model is that the risk of security compromise of centrally gathered user information is outweighed by the benefits of superior AI performance and that, for the foreseeable future, that favourable risk benefit ratio will be sustained using ‘good enough’ security measures balanced by AI performance. Apple’s gamble is fundamentally different, namely that they will be able to solve the problem of user-specific AI performance while maintaining industry leading consumer privacy protection.

    At this stage, both of these are gambles whose players have yet to be called to show their cards and pay up. When they are called, and they inevitably will be, it will likely be the consumers, and not the companies, whose payment will be the more dear and painful. It is the consumer, then, who needs to make the informed choice of where to place that bet, or to heed Dirty Harry and ask themselves how just how lucky they are feeling.

  • Scott: I can do that now with my Dot. Just press the “microphone off” button. The ring turns red. If I read that this protocol is secretly violated, it goes right back in the box.

  • When I can say, “Alexa, tell me when Amazon or the government is listening in on me,” then I will consider one of these things. I don’t trust Amazon, Google, or the government. And since I am not Edward Snowden, all I will say there is a good reason not to trust the government!

  • Wang
    OK I have to share this. It’s a college story so you already know what the joke is. It’s HOW the joke was done.

    At the University of Oregon the Physics Department had a once a year party calle Wanton Mechanics. (For all I know they still do.) Grad students and faculty were encouraged to do skits making fun of things in the department. (I was a Geology major but emphasizing Planetary Geology so I hung out with the Astronomers. That’s how I got invited.) One of the senior professors was Dr. er…Smith. Yeah we’ll call him Smith. He was VERY senior and always out of the country on this or that speaking engagement, research lab consultation, etc. etc. His students were often on their own for extended periods. Two of his senior grad students wrote this skit about what life was like in the lab only being able to connect with the Professor intermittently by phone and text message. This was the early ’80s so I don’t believe it was via e-mail. Just before the party one of the grad students caught up with an undergrad that worked in the lab, telling him that the other senior student was unable to make the party and he had to read his part in the skit. The kid, a very nervous sophomore reluctantly agreed.

    So they started reading the sketch. It was about the usual amusing things in the lab. Then toward the end the question from Dr. Smith came in “What has happened to that grant application for the new computer for the lab. That Wang System for data management?”
    The shy, undergrad that was already nervous about speaking in front of the department and all the professors replied
    “There hasn’t been any interest in Smith’s Wang in ages.”
    The look of shock on his face was priceless. He realized what he said, about 0.1 second after he said it. I’ve seldom seen a person get so red. And then he collapsed in hysterical laughter. Afterwards the other senior grad student that “couldn’t make it” bought him a stiff drink to make up for it.

    It was a good night.

  • My wife and I talked about whether to bring a phone on our next trip to the US, (we are both US citizens). I will not. Nor will I bring a computer. My wife OTOH feels she must stay in contact with her work so she will. We will see what happens.

    This reminds me of Loyalty Oaths back during the MccArthy era. Most signed them thinking it was their patriotic duty. A number of solid American citizens refused to sign them on principle. However you could be sure that any spies were very willing to sign. So now Border Security now claims the right to seize and search any electronic device. WSome Americans will gladly hand over their phones (often citing the old utterly fallacious trope of “If you aren’t doing anything wrong you have nothing to hide”.) A few will try to stand on principle and refuse, or like me just won’t bring their devices with them or at best just burner phones. I guarantee though that any people planning to do something bad either will not bring their phones or will hide any data in encrypted/cloud based files. In the end it’s just an unnecessary erosion of personal freedom for the illusion of security.

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