Amazon: Alexa upgrades for memory, context, meaning = antitrust risk?

Amazon: Alexa upgrades for memory, context, meaning = antitrust risk?

Amazon has announced three new upgrades for its Alexa AI platform on the back of healthy revenue increases, and is trailing a future of Alexa with everything. But there’s a lurking problem, says Chris Middleton: transparency.

Amazon has announced that its Alexa digital assistant is getting smarter and moving closer to natural language conversation abilities.

At the World Wide Web conference in Lyon, France, this week, Amazon – whose 2018 Q1 revenues have grown by 43 percent – announced that Alexa will start remembering conversations and begin learning about each customer.

Head of the Alexa Brain group, Ruhi Sarikaya, said, “In the US, we also soon will begin to roll out a new memory feature. With this capability, Alexa can remember any information for you so that you never forget.

“Alexa can store arbitrary information you want and retrieve it later. For example, a customer might ask: ‘Alexa, remember that Sean’s birthday is June 20th.’ Alexa will reply: ‘Okay, I’ll remember that Sean’s birthday is June 20th.’

“This memory feature is the first of many launches this year that will make Alexa more personalised,” he added. “It’s early days, but with this initial release we will make it easier for customers to save information, as well as provide a natural way to recall that information later.”

Natural language functions

Sarikaya explained that Alexa will soon be having more natural conversations with users as well, thanks to ‘context carryover’, a capability already available to the Google Assistant. Via this latest evolution of the platform, Alexa will be able to understand and respond to follow-up questions, without users having to address the device as ‘Alexa’ each time.

“Our goal is to enable more natural interaction with all of these IoT devices, and for these devices to more proactively engage with us,” said Sarikaya.

“It’s great to have a computing device wherever we go, yet we are still attached to a screen, touching, typing, and swiping,” he continued. “With voice, you’re truly mobile. Rarely am I looking directly at my Echo device when I ask a question, or make a request. In a sense, voice-enabled devices set me free.

“The profound difference in this emerging era is that with the benefit of AI and machine-learning technologies, Alexa and similar services can learn about you and conform to your needs, instead of you having to conform to the system’s interaction model.”

More on that last point in a moment.

A view to a skill

Amazon is also launching a third new capability for its digital assistant: ‘skills arbitration’.

“In the coming weeks, we’re rolling out this new capability that allows customers in the US to automatically discover, enable, and launch skills using natural phrases and requests,” explained Sarikaya.

“For example, using an Echo Show device, I recently asked: ‘Alexa, how do I remove an oil stain from my shirt?’ She replied: ‘Here is Tide Stain Remover.’ This beta experience was friction-free; the skill just walked me through the process of removing an oil stain from my shirt. Previously, I would have had to discover the skill on my own to use it,” he said.

This apparently innocent remark, however, may be storing up a world of problems for either Amazon or for market regulators, as we explain, below.

Pile ’em high, sell ’em cheap: inside an Amazon warehouse.

Alexa with everything

The retail and Web services giant has also launched a dedicated portal this week for its connected-home products and services, including the Ring doorbell from Amazon’s recent $1 billion acquisition.

The news comes in the wake of further announcements from – and rumours about – the company, which has diversified into deliveries, vertical markets, content creation, premium subscription services, and more, and is eyeing banking and healthcare.

Earlier this week, news broke that Amazon may be gearing up to launch a new line of ‘Vesta’ domestic robots, which are likely to feature Alexa and a range of apps, content, and connected-home functions.

Amazon has also teased the imminent launch of yet another Alexa-powered, device, the Fire Cube TV set-top box, suggesting that Alexa will be core to most, if not all, of its consumer hardware in the near future.

Child-friendly updates for its Echo smart speakers are another evolution, according to this report, suggesting that the children’s market is an increasingly important one for the company. Story-telling apps for robots would be an obvious future extension.

So: where does all this leave us?

Internet of Business says

The era of voice-enabled commerce is certainly here, as Amazon, Google, Apple, Microsoft, IBM, and soon Facebook, all go head to head in the digital assistant space. But voice alone isn’t appropriate for all applications: it’s a slow and linear means of navigating or consuming large volumes of text, for example. These are still better presented onscreen – or on smart glasses, via gesture-based controls.

Nevertheless, the increased integration of Amazon’s hardware, retail platform, Web services (Q1 revenues up 49 percent), and AI capabilities around Alexa is a compelling proposition. The company’s ability to treat hardware as a loss leader for its subscription and retail business means that it can drive down hardware prices for consumers and enterprises, while putting up the price of subscriptions.

Amazon this week announced it is increasing the price of its Prime membership fee by 20 percent, on the back of soaring revenues.

However, the concept is not without its challenges – not least of which will be transparency, fairness, and market regulation. This was implicit in Sarikaya’s seemingly innocuous anecdote about Alexa skills.

When he asked, “Alexa, how do I remove an oil stain from my shirt?” and the assistant replied: “Here is Tide Stain Remover”, the obvious question is why did Alexa – anecdotally at least – select Tide rather than another brand? Why was that top of the list, or the only choice?

Of course, the answer may be that Alexa will return as many answers as it has skills for – perhaps – or as many results as users can be bothered to listen to, but this forces companies to develop Alexa skills to even be noticed. And if only one company has developed a skill, then there may be only one available answer.

And in any long list of options on a voice platform, whichever item is number one will be weighted in its own favour, just as we pay most attention to page one of any Google search. So how does a company or product make it to number one? That’s the critical question.

The key point is this: transparency in voice-enabled retail – and, indeed, in any other AI-powered system – will increasingly be the main battleground.

Why was a decision made, based on what information? Why did a robot recommend Product A, rather than Product B or C? Why did it choose Service X from a bank or insurer, rather than Service Z from a rival provider? Might a retailer favour own-brand services via a smart assistant, for example? And what other commercial relationships exist behind the scenes to drive automated or AI-enabled decisions – ones that consumers may be unaware of?

More, how can marketers navigate a new world in which there is little point in pitching their products to impressionable humans when all they really need to do is to understand how to game a retailer’s algorithm to grab the number one spot – or pay for preferential treatment? Insider training, perhaps: a whole new legal concept.

This is the hidden challenge in voice-enabled commerce: far from liberating the user from the supposed tyranny of point-and-click interfaces/GUIs, it actually risks pushing users towards fewer and fewer preferred, or paid-for, options. And – on devices without a screen, at least – it may hide the rest from view.

This is the difference between paid-for advertising, which consumers can choose to ignore or engage with, and paid-for commerce, which may offer consumers no real choice at all.

Either way, Amazon loves it, and Sarikaya’s claim that Alexa somehow rescues consumers from ‘conforming to computer systems’ interaction model’ is demonstrably nonsense: Alexa forces them to comply with Amazon’s interaction model instead, based on commercial relationships that may be invisible to users.

This isn’t to suggest that Amazon is engaged in deception or antitrust activities. Merely that transparency and trust will be critical in any smart-assistant-powered realm, just as it is in the interlinked worlds of search and advertising, where Google has often found itself pulled up by the competition authorities.

And as net neutrality ends in the US, never have these questions been more important to answer.

• With thanks to Miya Knights for suggesting an improvement to this report – CM.

Chris Middleton
Chris Middleton is the editor of Internet of Business, and specialises in robotics, AI, the IoT, blockchain, and technology strategy. He is former editor of Computing, Computer Business Review, and Professional Outsourcing, among others, and is a contributing editor to Diginomica, Computing, and Hack & Craft News. Over the years, he has also written for Computer Weekly, The Guardian, The Times, PC World, I-CIO, V3, The Inquirer, and Blockchain News, among many others. He is an acknowledged robotics expert who has appeared on BBC TV and radio, ITN, and Talk Radio, and is probably the only tech journalist in the UK to own a number of humanoid robots, which he hires out to events, exhibitions, universities, and schools. Chris has also chaired conferences on robotics, AI, digital marketing, and space exploration, and spoken at numerous other events.