Most people had their first encounter with intelligent personal assistants a little over five years ago when Apple introduced Siri as a new feature of the iPhone 4s. This sparked a revolution that caused most major tech companies to develop their own artificial intelligence programming that would be capable of responding to and acting upon verbal input by the user. One of the newer entrants to the arena is Alexa, Amazon’s intelligent personal assistant.
Although Alexa is only two years old, Amazon has capitalized on the technology in different ways than previous companies. Rather than just making Alexa a feature on devices such as the Amazon Kindle or Fire, Amazon decided to make a new line of Amazon Echo products, smart speakers which are exclusively devoted to running Alexa. Two years after the release of the Amazon Echo line, Google came out with their own smart speaker known as Google Home and which runs the Google Assistant. While the competition between tech companies over personal assistants is sure to intensify in the coming years, it appears that for now Alexa has an early advantage.
At this year’s CES electronics trade show in Las Vegas, Alexa made an appearance as a feature of dozens of new devices and performing all new tasks. These ranged from giving directions to a driver in a Ford to arming or disarming a home security system from ADT. This type of integration allows an individual to have a truly unified experience with the assistant. This familiarity comes not only from having the same voice and operating system in each device, but is also in the way that the user’s personal data is common to all of the devices that feature the assistant. In this way Alexa is able to “remember” your preferences, relationships, and home no matter what device you are using to communicate with Alexa.
This means that you can tell Alexa to add an item to your Amazon shopping cart, as well as an estimated 7,000 other tasks, whenever you think of it, whether you are in your living room and are talking to your Alexa enabled lamp by GE or if you are doing laundry and access Alexa via your Whirlpool washing machine. As more and more household items become internet-connected, Alexa acts as the operating system of the home as a whole. Perhaps having an intelligent assistant as a central hub will allow for home automation and the internet of things to be more easily integrated into the average American household.
The biggest reason that Amazon’s Alexa is being incorporated into so many more devices than the competition (Apple’s Siri, Google’s Assistant, and Microsoft’s Cortana) has little to do with the intelligence or release date of each assistant, but is due more to Amazon’s openness to work with third party developers. While other companies have been highly protective of their artificial-intelligence capabilities, Amazon has chosen to open up the door for outside companies to imagine new uses for their assistant. This phenomenon is similar to the early days of the iPhone when the App Store created a way for developers to create entirely new uses for smart phones.
While many of the members are still hesitant to speak to an artificial assistant and are concerned that the devices that are always listening, it appears that the age of assistants is here to stay. As this technology is incorporated into new uses, it is easy to see how these assistants could be a valuable asset when performing tasks or retrieving information throughout the day. One day soon we might see Jarvis (the fictitious personal assistant in the Iron Man films) merely as a representation of reality rather than science-fiction.