If you own a device powered by Amazon's virtual assistant, Alexa, you probably use it mostly for things like checking the weather or controlling your home's smart lights. In the near future, however, Amazon says Alexa will be able to not only handle more complex requests but also answer questions you didn't even ask.

That's according to Rohit Prasad, head scientist of Alexa A.I., and Toni Reid, VP of Alexa experience, who spoke at the Wall Street Journal Future of Everything Festival in New York on Monday.  

Prasad says that Amazon is working on improving Alexa's ability to engage in transfer learning, which refers to the process of applying learned behaviors to new and different scenarios. Prasad offers the example of a child who touches a candle flame and gets burned; she might quickly learn that yellow-orange objects are hazardous, but will learn to distinguish that, say, a light bulb is a threat but a flower is not.  "This is the kind of learning humans are great at," Prasad says, "but A.I.'s are still in the early innings."

Soon, this type of learning will allow Alexa--which is built into more than 100 million devices worldwide--to anticipate requests. If you live in New York and ask your Echo for next week's weather in Boston, for example, it will anticipate that you have an upcoming trip and follow up on its answer by asking if you'd like to hear flight or hotel options.

"What Alexa is great at right now is completing transactional requests," Prassad says. "In the next few years you'll find it adds more and more utility, more and more functionality, and more and more fun. It will become more conversational." 

One of the challenges, of course, is gathering the huge amounts of data Amazon needs to improve its artificial intelligence while also ensuring customers that it's protecting their privacy. The company faced significant criticism last year when an Echo device recorded a couple's conversation, then emailed it to a someone on their contact list. (Amazon said the device had misinterpreted parts of the conversation as commands to do so.) 

Reid pointed out that Alexa has added new features in recent years, like a wake-up sound that plays when Alexa begins eavesdropping, or a mute button that prevents the device from listening while pressed. She also points out that the company has made it easier to delete Alexa's chat history. Still, records of conversations that are deleted by users do still exist within Amazon's subsystems, according to a report from CNET earlier this month.

While Amazon's ability to improve its A.I. depends largely on its ability to collect real-world conversations, Reid contested that Amazon's goal is never to overstep.

"We only collect the data we need to provide the service to the customer," Reid says. 

Published on: May 20, 2019