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Amazon Alexa is a virtual assistant developed by Amazon, first used in the Amazon Echo and the Amazon Echo Dot smart speakers developed by Amazon Lab126. It is capable of voice interaction, music playback, making to-do lists, setting alarms, streaming podcasts, playing audiobooks, and providing weather, traffic, sports, and other real-time information, such as news.Alexa can also control several smart devices using itself as a home automation system. Users are able to extend the Alexa capabilities by installing “skills” (additional functionality developed by third-party vendors, in other settings more commonly called apps such as weather programs and audio features).
Most devices with Alexa allow users to activate the device using a wake-word (such as Alexa); other devices (such as the Amazon mobile app on iOS or Android) require the user to push a button to activate Alexa’s listening mode. Currently, interaction and communication with Alexa are only available in English, German, French and Japanese. In November 2017, Amazon Alexa became available in the Canadian market in English only.
In November 2014, Amazon announced Alexa alongside the Echo. Alexa was inspired by the computer voice and conversational system on board the Starship Enterprise in science fiction TV series and movies, beginning with Star Trek: The Original Series and Star Trek: The Next Generation.
The name Alexa was chosen due to the fact that it has a hard consonant with the X and therefore could be recognized with higher precision. The name is also claimed to be reminiscent of the Library of Alexandria, which is also used by Amazon Alexa Internet for the same reason. In June 2015, Amazon announced Alexa Fund, a program that would invest in companies making voice control skills and technologies. The US$100 million in funds has invested in companies including Ecobee, Orange Chef, Scout Alarm, Garageio, Toymail, MARA, and Mojio.In 2016 the Alexa Prize was announced to advance the technology.
In January 2017, the first Alexa Conference took place in Nashville, Tennessee, an independent gathering of the worldwide community of Alexa developers and enthusiasts. The follow-up has been announced, to be keynoted by original Amazon Alexa / Connected Home product head Ahmed Bouzid.
At the Amazon Web Services Re:Invent conference in Las Vegas, Amazon announced Alexa for Business and the ability for app developers to have paid add-ons to their skills.
Alexa offers weather reports provided by AccuWeather and news provided by TuneIn from a variety of sources including local radio stations, NPR, and ESPN. Additionally, Alexa-supported devices stream music from the owner’s Amazon Music accounts and have built-in support for Pandora and Spotify accounts. Alexa can play music from streaming services such as Apple Music and Google Play Music from a phone or tablet. Alexa can manage voice-controlled alarms, timers, and shopping and to-do lists, and can access Wikipedia articles. Alexa devices will respond to questions about items in the user’s Google Calendar. As of November 2016, the Alexa Appstore had over 5,000 functions (“skills”) available for users to download, up from 1,000 functions in June 2016. As of a partnership with fellow technology company, Microsoft, Alexa will be available via its competing virtual personal assistant, Cortana. This functionality was said to come later in 2017; although as of April 2018, is still not available. In March 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.
In the home automation space, Alexa can interact with devices from several manufacturers including Belkin, ecobee, Geeni, IFTTT, Insteon, LIFX, LightwaveRF, Nest , Philips Hue, SmartThings, Wink, and Yonomi.The Home Automation feature was launched on April 8, 2015. Developers are able to create their own smart home skills using the Alexa Skills Kit.
Take-out food can be ordered using Alexa; as of May 2017 food ordering using Alexa is supported by Domino’s Pizza, Grubhub, Pizza Hut, Seamless, and Wingstop. Also, users of Alexa in the UK can order meals via Just Eat. In early 2017, Starbucks announced a private beta for placing pick-up orders using Alexa.In addition, users can order meals using Amazon Prime Now via Alexa in 20 major US cities With the introduction of Amazon Key in November 2017, Alexa also works together with the smart lock and the Alexa Cloud Cam included in the service to allow Amazon couriers to unlock customers’ front doors and deliver packages inside.
According to a August 2018 article by The Information, only 2 percent of Alexa owners have used the device them to make a purchase during the first seven months of 2018 and of those who made an initial purchase, 90 percent did not make a second purchase.
Alexa supports a multitude of subscription-based and free streaming services on Amazon devices. These streaming services include: Prime Music, Amazon Music, Amazon Music Unlimited, TuneIn, iHeartRadio, Audible, Pandora, and Spotify Premium. However, some of these music services are not available on other Alexa-enabled products that are manufactured by companies external of its services. This unavailability also includes Amazon’s own Fire TV devices or tablets.
Alexa is able to stream media and music directly. To do this, Alexa’s device should be linked to the Amazon account, which enables access to one’s Amazon Music library, in addition to any audiobooks available in one’s Audible library. Amazon Prime members have an additional ability to access stations, playlists, and over two million songs free of charge. Amazon Music Unlimited subscribers also have access to a list of millions of songs.
Amazon Music for PC allows one to play personal music from Google Play, iTunes, and others on an Alexa device. This can be done by uploading one’s collection to My Music on Amazon from a computer. Up to 250 songs can be uploaded free of charge. Once this is done, Alexa can play this music and control playback through voice command options.
Alexa allows the user to hear updates on supported sports teams. A way to do this is by adding the sports team to the list created under Alexa’s Sports Update app section.
There are a number of ways messages can be sent from Alexa’s application. Alexa is able to deliver messages to a recipient’s Alexa application, as well as to all of their Echo devices that are both supported and associated with their Amazon account. Alexa is able to send typed messages only from Alexa’s app. If one sends a message from an associated Echo device, it will be sent as a voice message. Alexa cannot send attachments such as videos and photos.
For households with more than one member, one’s Alexa contacts are pooled across all of the devices that are registered to its associated account. However, within Alexa’s app one is only able to start conversations with its Alexa contacts. When accessed and supported by an Alexa app or Echo device, Alexa messaging is available to anyone in one’s household. These messages can be heard by anyone with access in the household. This messaging feature does not yet contain a password protection or associated PIN. Anyone who has access to one’s cell phone number is able to use this feature to contact them through their supported Alexa app or Echo device. The feature to block alerts for messages and calls is available temporarily by utilizing the Do Not Disturb feature.
Alexa for Business is a paid subscription service allowing companies to use Alexa to join conference calls, schedule meeting rooms, and custom skills designed by 3rd-party vendors. At launch, notable skills are available from SAP, Microsoft, and Salesforce.
Amazon allows developers to build and publish skills for Alexa using the Alexa Skills Kit.These third-party developed skills, once published, are available across Alexa-enabled devices. Users can enable these skills using the Alexa app.
A “Smart Home Skill API” is available, meant to be used by hardware manufacturers to allow users to control smart home devices.
Most skills run code almost entirely in the cloud, using Amazon’s AWS Lambda service
Amazon allows device manufacturers to integrate Alexa voice capabilities into their own connected products by using the Alexa Voice Service (AVS), a cloud-based service that provides APIs to interface with Alexa. Products built using AVS have access to Alexa’s growing list of capabilities including all of the Alexa Skills. AVS provides cloud-based automatic speech recognition (ASR) and natural language understanding (NLU). There are no fees for companies looking to integrate Alexa into their products by using AVS.
The voice of Amazon Alexa is generated by a long short-term memory artificial neural network.
On November 30, 2016 Amazon announced that they will make the speech recognition and natural language processing technology behind Alexa available for developers under the name of Amazon Lex. This new service would allow developers to create their own chatbots that can interact in a conversational manner, similar to Alexa. Along with the connection to various Amazon services, the initial version will provide connectivity to Facebook Messenger, with Slack and Twilio integration to follow.
There are concerns about the access Amazon has to private conversations in the home and other non-verbal indications that can identify who is present in the home with non-stop audio pick-up from Alexa-enabled devices. Amazon responds to these concerns by stating that the devices only stream recordings from the user’s home when the ‘wake word’ activates the device. The device is technically capable of streaming voice recordings at all times, and in fact will always be listening to detect if a user has uttered the wake word unless muted.
Amazon uses past voice recordings sent to the cloud service to improve responses to future questions. Users can delete voice recordings that are associated with their account. To delete these recordings, the user can visit the History tab in the Alexa app or contact Amazon customer service.
Alexa uses an address stored in the companion app when it needs a location. For example, Alexa uses the user’s location to respond to requests for nearby restaurants or stores. Similarly, Alexa uses the user’s location for mapping-related requests.
Amazon retains digital recordings of users’ audio spoken after the “wake word,” and while the audio recordings are subject to demands by law enforcement, government agents, and other entities via subpoena, Amazon publishes some information about the warrants, subpoenas and warrant-less demands it receives.