Buckle in: Alexa is asking the questions now - Unmasp - experience exhibiting blog

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Buckle in: Alexa is asking the questions now

Buckle in: Alexa is asking the questions now

Voice assistants are advancing quickly -- and in the process may change us. Should we try to do anything about it?

mubashir ahmed 
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In the future, software in products like the Amazon Echo Studio will feature give-and-take conversations.

Sarah Tew/CNET

If you use Amazon's Alexa voice assistant with any regularity, you might have recently noticed something new: Alexa is beginning to ask questions. These are called Hunches, which you may have read about when they were announced two years ago, and they happen when Alexa tries to anticipate your requests -- for instance, reminding you to lock the door at night. Hunches are only the start.

During this week's Alexa Live developers conference, Amazon announced another new upgrade: give-and-take conversations with the voice assistant. The tools for such conversation are already being implemented by third-party developers and it wouldn't be a surprise to hear Alexa, in the next few months, begin to ask follow-up questions after you give the usual commands.

These might seem like incremental improvements, but they could dramatically change how we understand and use voice assistants. After all, we've seen movies in which AI creations banter with their creators, but few of us have actually spent time wondering if we'd actually want to spend much time chatting with Alexa over coffee each morning. And more importantly, we haven't grappled enough with the costs of such advances.

The power of Alexa

It's almost passe to talk about the immense troves of data companies like Amazon and Google can tap nowadays, but that data is the fuel powering the smart home's proverbial engine -- and Alexa is the fracking apparatus gathering it.

Amazon's release of the Echo Dot with Clock last year gave a small window into the usefulness of such data: Alexa fields questions about the time of day over a billion times per year, so Amazon built a device to answer that question more effectively. It's simple supply and demand, but where Amazon can quantify the demand with unprecedented precision.

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2019's Echo Dot with Clock represents Amazon's data-gathering tools in action.

Chris Monroe/CNET

Now, Amazon is testing out more proactive behaviors for Alexa, having the assistant prompt users on occasion -- and the company can track in real time the rate of success in those predictions. People are responding positively (that is, affirming Alexa's suggested actions) "the vast majority of the time," according to Vice President of Smart Home at Amazon Daniel Rausch.

Rausch and I spoke on the phone before the developers conference and he was as excited as ever about the innovations in the voice-driven smart home space. He said more developers than ever are designing Alexa skills and devices to work with the voice assistant -- over 750,000 were registered for the conference -- and it's cheaper than ever to incorporate Alexa-compatibility into any given device, at a jaw-dropping $4.

The growth in third-party development means the instant feedback loop, in which Amazon can roll out features, test them and receive immediate customer response data, is only growing in value for Amazon -- especially as they push deeper into uncharted consumer territory. 

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Amazon's voice assistant is making itself at home in more than the house, thanks to the Alexa app, Echo Auto and other out-of-home devices.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Perhaps, like the hours of time we spend on our phones each day, we'll arrive at a new norm without ever having time to seriously consider the route we're taking, the destination ahead. Or perhaps, the time to consider such things is now.

Visions of the future

The EU is currently looking into Google, Amazon and other tech giants for precisely this kind of data-driven market dominance in the smart home space in Europe -- though the stated goal is to maintain healthy competition.

Another type of inquiry -- formal or informal -- is in order: What exactly could the unforeseen outcomes of expanded voice technology be? Is there a way to progress technologically without risking such outcomes?

Daniel Rausch and others at Amazon are typically hesitant to talk about specific goals in the far future, but the investment the tech giant is making into its voice technology tells us more than you might think about the vision Amazon is pursuing. It's a vision that's simultaneously exciting and concerning.

We're not likely to reach the sci-fi levels Iron ManMoon or Her too soon, but as we become more accustomed to a give-and-take mode of interacting with Alexa, we're moving toward voice technology taking a much more central spot in our daily lives. As Rausch told me over the phone, Alexa use has quadrupled in the past two years and the increase in Alexa-use is non-linear: Growth over the next year will likely outpace growth over the past year.

As Alexa and other voice assistants find homes in new devices -- controlling our TVs, phones and even microwaves -- and as they also become more predictive and proactive in their interactions with us, we could see the voice landscape dramatically change in increasingly short periods of time.

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The Amazon Basics microwave is likely only an early example of what will become normal over the next decade: voice-driven appliances.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

More concretely: Within a year, we could conceivably see Alexa (and other voice assistants) hear you walk into the kitchen using abilities akin to Alexa Guard (which can distinguish between human and pet footsteps), ask if you'd like it to preheat the oven for your usual lunch and so on -- all unprompted. Many customers might be happy for such convenience, even given the cost to privacy it represents.

It's not just privacy at stake: People are turning to voice assistants for information on the COVID-19, on mental health, on exercise and more -- and Alexa dutifully provides skills, sometimes hundreds of skills, to address such needs. As one Atlantic writer mused about the future of voice assistants, "With their perfect cloud-based memories, they will be omniscient; with their occupation of our most intimate spaces, they'll be omnipresent. And with their eerie ability to elicit confessions, they could acquire a remarkable power over our emotional lives."

As Alexa changes, so do we. Many of us who use voice assistants regularly have found tricks to interacting with them. Alexa never understands when I ask for the album KTSE by Teyana Taylor, for instance, so I have to play an individual song from it, then tell the assistant to "play this whole album." My wife, who is convinced Alexa is sexist for never understanding her commands as well as the assistant understands mine ("I have more practice," I always assure her, only mostly certain of myself), is much more willing to insult Alexa -- and, strangely enough, to apologize.

I worry about how our three- and four-year-old will interact with voice assistants and I honestly don't know what type of interaction is "right" anyway.

In short, Alexa, Google Assistant, Siri and any number of other assistants are changing privacy norms, changing culture and changing us.

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Cameras connected to Alexa and other voice assistants only add another layer of complexity to the conversation.

Chris Monroe/CNET

Can we preserve our privacy -- and ourselves -- and also experience the convenience afforded by such advances? If we try, it will certainly slow things down -- something companies like Amazon are likely keen to avoid.

Privacy policy, messy as it may be, is important here. Bills like California's CCPA (which has only just started being enforced as of July) help cite businesses for violating user privacy or failing to properly inform users about the data being collected on them. Such bills, with the rapid expansion of voice and smart home technology, need to be living documents, developing alongside Alexa and other voice assistants, challenging them where appropriate.

On an individual level, it's still worth practicing privacy hygiene -- deleting apps from your phone if you don't use them regularly, opting for the strictest privacy options from social media and voice assistants and so on. More fundamentally, now is the best time to start asking ourselves what we want our futures to look like, and how much access voice assistants should have to our lives, our homes and our selves.

Echoes of the past

If a time traveler from the future had told us in 2007 the sleep problems and behavioral changes touch screens would usher into our lives, would it or should it have changed the trajectory of our phone innovations over the next thirteen years to 2020?

If the answer is yes, then another question is worth asking: As we see Amazon actively build toward a future that centrally positions its voice assistant in the home, should we do more to protect what privacy we have left?

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