Friday’s keynote speaker at CEDIA 2016 is Charlie Kindel, director of Alexa Smart Home at Amazon. Here, Charlie answers eight questions about his keynote – and about the Star-Trek-inspired voice user interface he’s developed.
Can you give us any hints as to what will be covered in the Keynote at CEDIA?
“Smart home has had many iterations over the years and with the introduction of Alexa and hands-free voice in the home, we think customers are seeing now (more than ever) that smart home and a voice user interface isn’t as complicated as many people once thought. It’s actually very simple and convenient.
“With the massive growth of connected devices and services we believe that voice is the future and will fundamentally improve the way people will interact with technology. So the concept of what that means for Amazon, Alexa and its partners (or future partners) will be what I cover.”
Tells us what you can about the challenges in the development of Alexa. Did you experience any unexpected challenges in the development phase?
“We launched the Amazon Echo as an invite-only product in November, 2014. Then in June 2015 it was available for customers. The two inputs that went into the formation of the idea for Echo were this sort of ‘revival’ of artificial intelligence and machine learning.
“We were using machine-learning algorithms internally at Amazon for a long period of time – mostly in the early days for our recommendations engines on Amazon.com. And so once we saw the success of our recommendations engines and the use of machine learning, our leadership challenged us to try to figure out how we could use those similar techniques in other areas throughout Amazon. So that was kind of the first input that went into Amazon Echo and Alexa.
“The second input was the vision or inspiration. The original inspiration for the Echo was the Star Trek computer. We wanted to create a computer in the cloud that’s controlled entirely by your voice – you could ask it things, ask it to do things for you, find things for you and it’s easy to converse with in a natural way. We’re a ways off from that, but that was is our vision.”
Now that early bugs are being fixed, what issues have popped up you didn’t expect? (One user who bought an Echo in winter found that Alexa stopped recognising him in summer. The reason? Ambient AC noise! The fix: talk louder!)
“One of the interesting use cases we learned from is within the smart home category. Originally when we launched smart home capabilities, you would tell Alexa to turn on or off your lights and Alexa would say ‘okay’ and then turn them off. Before knowing that many of our customers relied on that sort of verbal reassurance from Alexa with their smart home products, we decided to remove the ‘okay.’
“Come to find out, many customers were not happy with us removing that. After hearing some feedback on this – we decided to add that reassurance utterance back into our smart home UX. The interesting thing with this use case is that for the first time we’re learning a ton about what customers want or need in their home when they’re interacting with a voice-only device. Without having a visual cue like a spinner wheel, or a text screen confirming that something has been done, many customers like Alexa to provide that reassurance. We’ve implemented more of those cues throughout our learnings on this.”
Any priceless mis-hears you’d care to share?
“Unfortunately, no. As a general security and privacy guideline, we don’t share customer utterance data.”
How is Amazon addressing security and privacy concerns?
“We take privacy very seriously at Amazon, and designing Echo was no different. All information is subject to the Amazon.com Privacy Notice at www.amazon.com/privacy. Additional information about privacy is available here.
“As it relates to Echo and Echo Dot, we use on-device keyword spotting to listen for the wake word and only the wake word (Alexa, Amazon or Echo.) When the wake word is detected, the light ring around the top of the device turns blue to indicate that Alexa is streaming audio to the cloud. You can turn the microphone off by pushing the microphone button on the top of the device, which will turn on a red ring to indicate it’s muted. Importantly, customers can always delete individual utterances from the Alexa app or all of them on the Manage Your Content and Devices page on Amazon.com.”
Are you familiar with the fan site lovemyecho.com? Thoughts?
“Yes, I am – and I love it. Here’s why: A customer loved our product so much they created an entire website dedicated to it. The dozens of sites like this that are appearing help other customers do more with Alexa. This is the kind of ground-swell of customer engagement that re-affirms to us that we’re really on to something big with Alexa and makes us even more committed to doing more. And as we do, hopefully, more customers will love the product.”
Who wrote these so-called (by the fansite) ‘Stupid Alexa Tricks,’ and are you taking freelance pitches?
“We have a team who writes a variety of content for Echo, but I’m not sure who specifically wrote those Q&As. I’m sure the team would love ideas. I’d encourage anyone to Tweet ideas @AmazonEcho.”
What’s your favourite Alexa joke?
“Actually, recently, my favourite silly thing to do with Alexa is say: ‘Alexa, ask Audio Goal for a Goal’. First you’ll need to enable the Audio Goal Alexa skill, but I encourage you to try it out!”
This article was written by Ed Wenck.