I was at a holiday party recently and was asked "What is the Amazon Echo?" It seemed like a simple question. Yet, as I started giving an answer, trying to keep it practical rather than technical, I realized this was a harder question than I thought. Even Alexa will give an answer:
"Alexa is an intelligent personal assistant developed by Amazon.com's Lab126, made popular by the Echo."
This explanation doesn't give an idea of what Alexa is. We know Alexa is sold as a speaker system, which is the way it gets into our house, because at least that provides a reasonable explanation to what it is, everybody knows what a speaker is.
One way we could answer this question is if we could talk about what Alexa does, (or what the Amazon Echo does) like this:
- Bluetooth speaker that responds to voice commands
- Listen to streaming music using voice commands.
- Intelligent helper, like Wikipedia, but ask questions with voice commands. Ask for the weather or when a movie is playing in a local cinema with voice commands.
- Home automation lets you control lights thermostats and many electronics around your house using voice commands.
That gives some general ideas of what it can do, but there is much more to it then this. The one unifying aspect to all the bullet items above is "..using voice commands". And that is the key!
USELESS TRIVIA: Alexa is named after the ancient library of Alexandria in Egypt which was the largest and most significant library at the time.
Alexa (and other voice assistants) are the next computing platforms. In ten years we will think nothing of using voice commands for the vast majority of what we currently do on a computer or smart phone today. Because as new Skills are written to give new functionality we will then have new use cases.
It's a Platform!
What I have come to realize is that Alexa is a platform. Just like the PC and smart phones are. It is an infrastructure that others can enhance both through software and hardware. They can build on top of what there to create new and unkown functionality.
It is like when personal computers first became available in the 1980's, people didn't know what to make of them, because on their own they were limited. They only began to sell to the larger population when the first "Killer Application" became available, and that was a spreadsheet. First VisiCalc and then Lotus 1-2-3. I should ask What will be the "Killer Skill" for Alexa which make people buy it for that use alone. They people find all the other practical uses and can't stop.
When Windows and Mac became popular and software developers learned how to write better and more powerful software it was realized the PC is really a platform for computing. This platform was built on the graphical user interface which had users typing commands with a keyboard (DOS) and then with a mouse (Mac/Windows). The next platform was smartphones with touch screens.
Alexa is a platform based on voice commands. This is what makes it so powerful, and we are just at the beginning of this incredibly era.
If we look back to how long it has taken for technologies like Natural Language Understanding and Text To Speech to be useful these voice assistants have been in the making for a good 30 years.
Alexa is meant to have third party developers to write extensions modules for it. We have to give credit to Amazon for being the first to realize this and figure a way to do it. Just this week both Google Home and Microsoft are working on adding the ability to have extensions for their voice assistants. Yet Alexa has had this ability for years.
Additionally, Alexa is meant for hardware manufacturers to put into their devices. There are a number of devices already available that include Alexa and more are coming. Amazon already has over 1,500 employees working on Alexa and everything related. That number will go up to 2,000 by the first quarter of next year.
As these voice assistants become more powerful and developers learn how to develop for them and create natural and powerful user interfaces they will be more and more popular. I am not saying Windows and Mac are going away, as they are not because we still need them. Same way, smart phones are not going away either.
We are just at the beginning to the point where computers will be more and more a part of our lives, primarily because of the fact that we will be able to communicate with them in the most natural way possible: through voice.