Amazon Alexa can hear you. And she now listens really intently.

For the first time ever, the bot that is changing how we shop, how we use our phones, and how we experience AI is able to engage in normal conversation, not requiring that you say her name after an initial question. It's a sign of how AI will evolve over time, conversing with us as though the robot is our friend. And it could be the beginning of a much more vital, persistent, and enriching relationship. Here's how it all works.

If you go to the settings on your phone and find the speaker you're using, there's a new option called Follow-Up. You just enable it, and when you say "Alexa" to ask about the weather or traffic, the bot will keep listening for a while. You will know this because the blue light keeps shining on the top. Engineers who announced the new feature said Alexa knows if you're talking to the bot, likely because of how it parses the conversation. If you stay within the same context of the conversation, Alexa will keep talking.

As a test, I asked Alexa about the weather. Then, without saying Alexa again (which has always been an annoying step if you want to ask multiple questions in a row), I asked about the weather for the rest of the week. After the report, the light shone blue again, so I asked about the news. Then, I asked about the age of our current president, the age of former presidents, and asked Alexa to tell me a joke. I never had to trigger the bot again.

What does this mean? It's the first time I've had a normal conversation with Alexa, without having to say the trigger word. It felt exactly like talking to a friend.

I've written before about how bots will replace our phones eventually, especially once they become smarter and more helpful. But this is a big step forward, even if it seems minor at first. Alexa is listening better, and smarter. The next step is for bots to start acting more proactively, to suggest actions and ideas that will help us even when we don't know what to ask. Imagine a future where a bot can watch us making pancakes. We ask for the recipe, Alexa responds. Then the bot reminds us not to forget the butter and to grease the pan. Can an app on a phone do that? Not at all.

I can also imagine having a bot give me advice throughout the day. We might ask initially about an area of the country where we might move, like California or North Carolina. We'd ask about the weather there and the crime rate. But the conversation could evolve from that point naturally. Alexa might tell us some interesting facts about a business boom in the area, or about some new trends. The bot might alert us the next day that there's a new house for sale that we might like, one that matches a previous search or interests.

The reason Follow-Up mode is so important is that it is a step away from a mindless bot that sits in the corner and responds on cue. Instead, Alexa is more like a colleague or a friend. It can relay information to us, then keep listening as we speak. Maybe you find this to be creepy or weird, but I like the change. A lot. To me, it means bots are acting more human, providing more help in a way that seems natural, a part of our everyday routine.

They are evolving.

Published on: Mar 12, 2018