Harry McCracken of Fast Company met with two of the people behind the creation of the Echo and Alexa to discuss what they have learned since the Echo’s launch two years ago. Rohit Prasad, VP and head scientist for Alexa machine learning, and Toni Reid, director of product for Echo devices and Alexa, shared a few interesting insights, summarized below.
The inspiration for Alexa was the Star Trek computer. The team’s initial project was to create a computing interface that was like communicating with a human being, similar to the Star Trek computer. But working backwards, the team realized it wanted the device to be controlled by voice and voice alone. “Not having a screen meant there was no escape route,” says Prasad. “We had to solve that problem.”
The Echo’s soft launch to Amazon Prime members was to generate feedback. When the Echo launched in November of 2014, there was no press conference circus. Instead, the company quietly announced that its new Echo smart speaker would exclusively be available to Amazon Prime members. “We thought, let’s go to a subset of customers who we think will give us feedback and who want to shape the product,” Reid explains. “It turned out that it worked. We had a group of great customers who gave us early feedback and high usage.”
Smart home integration wasn’t a priority for Alexa at first. Some of the first feedback from Echo users wasn’t a surprise to the Amazon team, like how they wanted to be able to use their Spotify, Pandora and Audible apps with Alexa. But what did surprise them was the number of consumers who wanted to use the speaker to control their smart home devices. In fact, the first video introducing the Echo doesn’t even mention smart home integration. “The smart home has been a big surprise for us from a usage perspective,” says Reid. “You’re moving out of this very early-adopter perspective, with high-tech hackers setting it up. It’s becoming more mainstream and I think Alexa is actually allowing that to happen and simplifying it for customers.”
Amazon wants Alexa to be able to hold long, in-depth conversations in the future. Even though Amazon has made great strides in making Alexa seem human, the company acknowledges there is still more work to be done. And it’s asking for help. Amazon created the Alexa Prize in September, which is a competition for university students to create bots that can chat at length about various topics for 20 minutes. Amazon is hoping to create “a setting where you can have more long-term discussions, rather than this transactional nature of interactions, where you say ‘play music,’ but you’re not actually engaging in a full conversation. That’s where we’re going next,” comments Prasad.
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