Two years ago, Amazon announced a new feature for Alexa: the ability to ask questions. Hunches, as they're called, have slowly rolled out since the announcement, and now it's fairly common to hear Alexa move outside her old "answer questions, obey commands" routine. The voice assistant usually asks these questions as follow-ups to your commands or questions, and they're a result of Alexa trying to anticipate your requests -- for instance, reminding you to lock the door at night.
Hunches are only the start.
During July'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.
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 July's 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.
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.
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 Man, Moon 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.
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.
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.
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?