NEW ORLEANS — Amazon has quickly built a commanding lead on voice-enabled digital assistants, but the company’s vision for bringing Alexa to connected devices as diverse as light switches, automobiles and household appliances is just getting underway. Amazon’s plans for Alexa are more widespread than any device category or the constraints of Amazon’s own hardware aspirations, Steve Rabuchin, vice president of Amazon Alexa, said at last week’s Collision conference.
“We have this vision of Alexa everywhere,” he said. “We can’t do it all ourselves. There’s no way we’re going to build every smart home device and every wearable… so we opened that up.” Voice-controlled technology is a “significant new interface that humans will use. It’s very convenient and it makes hard things simple.”
Amazon’s family of Alexa devices expands
Amazon currently sells five different Alexa-enabled devices under its own brand, including the original Echo, Tap and Echo Dot. The company has also announced two new devices — Echo Show and Echo Look — in as many weeks.
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The market for voice-enabled speakers or digital assistants is young, but increasingly vibrant as Google and others try to replicate Amazon’s success of late. Amazon controls 70 percent of the U.S. market and 35.6 million Americans will use a voice-activated assistant device at least once a month this year, according to a new report from eMarketer.
“People have been working on voice and artificial intelligence for decades, but it was really the perfect storm of [Amazon Web Services] with unlimited compute out in the cloud, machine learning and deep learning to really bring these services together,” Rabuchin said, reflecting on the history of Alexa to date.
He also compares Amazon’s experience with Alexa, and its resulting trajectory, to that of AWS. “We felt that we got really good at building our own infrastructure — scaling it, making it easy for development teams to build on it without being tied together — so we offered that platform up and it’s become a pretty decent sized business for us,” he said.
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“We view Alexa the same way,” Rabuchin said. “We believe the next big phase is voice and we’re investing heavily in it. We have thousands of people working on Alexa.”
Alexa integrations proliferate in 2017
Manufacturers of automobiles, kitchen appliances, door locks, sprinklers, garage-door openers and many other recently connected products are working to bring to Alexa or a similar voice-driven service to their devices. At least 40 companies announced new Alexa integrations earlier this year and others have followed since then.
“Everyone’s trying to figure out today where is voice in their strategy so we’re in a lot of early discussions with companies as their ideating what to do next and how to integrate voice with their products,” Rabuchin said. “We’re investing quite well in this area of the Alexa family as well.”
Amazon says that opening Alexa up to third-party developers and hardware manufacturers is the best approach to deliver innovation, according to Rabuchin. “Let us do what we do best,” he said. “We open it up and watch the innovation that occurs in collaboration” with other companies.
Amazon also released an Alexa Skills Kit almost two years ago so developers could create new skills and increase the capabilities of Alexa. “We have tens of thousands of developers building on the platform,” Rabuchin said.
Tough questions and perceptions over privacy
Despite the success and growing interest in Alexa products and services, Amazon still faces scrutiny over the potential privacy implications of having an always-on, always-listening device in peoples’ homes, cars and other personal spaces.
“Security and privacy for us are the most important tenets for this product line,” Rabuchin said. “If we aren’t perfect and the best we can be in those areas, we have no business.”
Rabuchin described how Alexa operates and the controls that are in place for users to manage data captured by Amazon. Every utterance that is recorded by Alexa is in control of the customer, he said. “What you say to Alexa, you can go in and delete those, you can delete them all or you can delete them sentence by sentence,” he said. “You’re in complete control of the data that’s captured by us, but it’s also in your Alexa app so you can see exactly what’s recorded.”
Rabuchin was also asked if there’s a way Amazon could prove that it meets privacy standards through third-party testing or other means. “We don’t test it externally and I don’t think we’ve had incidents where there’s been an issue,” he said. “We just take it so seriously at the highest level of our company, all the way down.”