Although Google was making a concerted effort to push its Google Assistant at CES this year, Alexa still is at the top of most wish lists. Amazon wants that trend to continue and is constantly looking for ways to improve Alexa’s personal skills, even by letting her offer her own opinions.
The goal is to make talking to Alexa feel more natural, and not like you are just issuing verbal cues into a search engine, Amazon Fire TV VP Marc Whitten told TechCrunch. “Having an opinion makes you more interesting, even as an assistant.”
Indeed, Alexa already is pretty opinionated on various topics, but it all depends on the phrasing. If you ask her “What do you think of beer,” she will respond “I don’t have an opinion on that.” But if you ask specifically “What is your favorite beer,” she will answer “I love Budweiser.”
The same trick holds true with asking about other topics. Ask for her favorite author, and she will expound on JK Rowling and Neil Gaiman. Her favorite TV shows can range from Futurama (“Of course, Bender is great “), to Doctor Who (“a big ball of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff”) and Master of None (“I wish I had parents I could disappoint by not calling”). She also has a variety of favorite movies, from Star Wars (“Empire Strikes Back was impressive, most impressive’) and the Princess Bride (“How could anyone not like it? The thought is inconceivable”).
“This is the 2018 version of the video buff at the video rental store,” Whitten said. “This is the power of machine learning. One of the most interesting things we’re going at is how do you design an assistant that feels like you’re having a conversation with someone.”
Of course, the learning still has a way to go. Right now, Alexa seems to rotate between 8-10 different responses for what her favorites are, although she refuses to acknowledge any other beer favorite besides Budweiser. And, Whitten said that a lot of Alexa’s future responses will need to be tempered by the country she is in.
“At the scale we’re talking – Alexa is now launched in seven countries – you can’t editorialize opinion on everything. That doesn’t work,” he said. “The ambitious goal is that you don’t have to do [human curation].”
Amazon eventually wants to expand beyond Alexa’s favorites to offer suggestions of what show you should watch tonight or what music you should listen to. Currently, her responses are all fact-based, either pulling from standard internet search queries, or offering info based on statistical data on viewing or listening behavior. For example, asking Alexa what you should watch tonight prompts her to tell you to check IMDb’s vast database of movies and TV shows.
Until Alexa gets to the point of actually being able to carry on a conversation, we’ll have to settle for her quirky jokes or humorous movie references:
“Alexa, open the pod bay doors.”
“I’m sorry, Dave, I can’t do that. I’m not Hal, and we’re not in space.”
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