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What is Amazon Alexa?
  • Last Updated : 23 Sep, 2020

Many people have an idea of what Alexa is, but still don’t understand exactly how the virtual assistant works. Alexa is the voice A.I. that’s accessible through Echo devices. However, Amazon’s virtual assistant is not just a device, its way more interesting. The Amazon Echo is one of a range of hands-free speakers and devices from Amazon that can be controlled with your voice. The voice-controlled “personal assistant” on these devices is called Alexa, which will perform various tasks for you and control various systems. There are two sides to this question – devices that work with Alexa (such as Philips Hue) and devices that offer Amazon Voice Services, which is the platform that runs Alexa.  

First and foremost, Alexa is designed around Amazon’s own Echo devices. The Amazon Echo range includes the standard Echo, Echo Plus, Echo Studio, and Echo Dot, which are all speakers, and then the Echo Show, Echo Show 5, Echo Show 8, and the Echo Spot, which also feature a display, so can give you visual feedback, like weather widgets, videos or song lyrics. There are several Amazon Alexa gadgets too though, like the Echo Wall Clock and Echo Flex smart plug for example.  

Features of Alexa

Alexa can play music, provide information, deliver news and sports scores, tell you the weather, control your smart home, and even allow Prime members to order products from Amazon. Alexa sits in the cloud, expanding the information offered all the time and refining the responses to give you more accurate information. No matter what Alexa device you ask, all can return these sorts of answers, be that on your soundbar or in your car. The Echo devices with a display can also return visual information, extending beyond widgets to news videos, recipes, or games. On the display-equipped devices – Echo Show and Echo Spot – you can also use touch controls to respond, for example, to control smart home devices.

Setting Up Alexa

Some Echo devices take this a step further offering Zigbee support, which will allow you to directly connect and set up smart home devices without needing a separate app or hub for that device. For example, you can buy a single Philips Hue bulb and set it up with your Echo Plus second-gen or Echo Studio, without needing a Hue Hub.

Asking Alexa

There are plenty of things you can ask Alexa to do. Skills in the Alexa app enable you to customize your Echo device with capabilities to suit your preference. There are several skill categories within the Skills section of the app, including Connected Car, Food & Drink, Travel & Transportation, Music & Audio, Smart Home, and plenty more. To get started, you just have to tap Enable Skill when you’ve found one that is suited to you – or you can ask Alexa to enable skills via voice.

Some will require you to link to an existing account or separate subscription to use. For example, to use Uber with Alexa, you’ll need to have signed in to your Uber account within the Skills section of the Alexa app.

Here are just a few examples of what you can ask Alexa to do:

"Alexa, wake me up at 10 in the morning"
"Alexa, turnoff the lights."

Technology Advancements

As of April 2019, Amazon had over 90,000 functions (“skills”) available for users to download on their Alexa-enabled devices, a massive increase from only 1,000 functions in June 2016. Microsoft’s AI Cortana became available to use on Alexa enabled devices as of August 2018. In 2018, Amazon rolled out a new “Brief Mode,” wherein Alexa would begin responding with a beep sound rather than saying, “Okay,” to confirm receipt of a command. On December 20, 2018, Amazon announced a new integration with the Wolfram Alpha answer engine, which provides enhanced accuracy for users asking questions of Alexa related to math, science, astronomy, engineering, geography, history, and more.

The technology involved in the Development of Alexa

Amazon Echo might look like a cylindrical speaker, and it is in part. The device has built-in speakers that play music. But it does so much more than that. Like smartphones with voice-recognition capabilities, Echo is yet another step toward the voice-controlled computers of science fiction we’ve been seeing on television for years. You can ask the gadget to play audio, tell you the weather and temperature of outside, make a to-do list, read your schedule, or the news. If you have compatible smart-home devices, you can tell the Echo to decrease the brightness of the lights or turn appliances on or off. By design, you interact with the device hands-free so that you don’t have to stop everything and fumble with your phone or get to a computer (although you do need to access an app or website to configure some of its settings. Your device must be connected to WiFi always. If it will not be connected to the net then it will not work. Alexa converts your words that you speak, interprets the commands, and routes them to the proper web service to get the correct result. Alexa then converts the response whether from an Alexa service or other web app and sends it back via audio to your device, and in many cases via text and graphical cards to the Alexa official app home screen.

Use of Natural language technique

More artificial intelligence, specifically natural language AI, is finding its way into Alexa and in more ways. For starters, Amazon says it’s been using neural networks to make Alexa’s voice sound more human when it translates text (like your text messages) into speech. So-called active learning, in which the system identifies areas in which it needs help from a human expert, has helped substantially cut down on Alexa’s error rates.

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