It perhaps could have happened sooner, as artificial intelligence (AI) chatbots with large language models (LLMs) as underliers have caught our collective attention over the past year. ‘Better late than never’ is perhaps how one would describe Amazon’s next big upgrade for the Alexa virtual assistant. At its annual keynote that focused on Alexa and its accompanying smart device ecosystem, Amazon confirms Alexa is ready to find a new large language model as its foundation.
While it is already true to an extent, using generative AI is expected to give Alexa the sort of finesse with conversational capabilities, that it presently perhaps doesn’t have the tools to achieve. In a way, the evolution of chatbots has been so rapid, voice assistants quickly went from being exciting, futuristic tech to basic tools one now expects as par for the course, on a smart speaker or a smartphone.
Or we have simply become used to a more conversational AI, with chatbots such as ChatGPT, Microsoft’s Bing and Google’s Bard.
Generative AI for Alexa will mean three important things. The ability to have a proper conversation (more than it can already do), understand context to personalise results for users and the ability to understand complexity of commands. Amazon says they are also finding ways to reduce latency, i.e., the time taken by the assistant to find the necessary response to a query. This should, in theory, make conversations flow without pauses.
“This new Alexa LLM will be connected to hundreds of thousands of real-world devices and services via APIs. It also enhances Alexa’s ability to process nuance and ambiguity — much like a person would — and intelligently take action,” says Daniel Rausch, vice president, Alexa and Fire TV, in a statement.
Alexa already has some reach with third party services, such as the ability to select Spotify, Apple Music and JioSaavn as the music streaming alternatives if a user so chooses, to its own Prime Music.
As AI continues to develop around us, it is easy to get confused between virtual assistants as we know them, and chatbots that have emerged in the more recent timeline. While assistants have always relied on AI and massive data sets to derive their knowledge and responses, generative AI brings in the ability handle complex queries and tasks as well as be more conversational.
An example of the subtle difference would be ChatGPT at first, limited by the (admittedly massive) data sets it learned from, and ChatGPT once OpenAI launched plugins that allowed the chatbot to browse the internet for recency and relevant context. “Customers have told us time and again that they love Alexa’s personality. You don’t want a rote, robotic companion in your home, and I’d argue Alexa’s personality is one of the biggest reasons for Alexa’s broad adoption,” adds Rausch.
This advanced evolution of Alexa will roll out in the “soon”, first to all through a preview program for users just in the US. The exact timelines haven’t been confirmed yet, and neither is the roadmap for global rollout.
Alongside Alexa’s evolution, Amazon’s Echo and Fire TV line-ups are lining the upgrades and new additions. There is the next generation of the Echo Show 8 smart display, a new Echo Hub, Echo Frames and the latest edition of the Fire TV Stick 4K Max. Since Alexa is the underlier for the experience on all these devices, and the extended family they join into, improved conversational AI capabilities will perhaps unlock better context and more use cases.
The updates to the Echo Show 8 include a new processor, which Amazon claims, allows for more requests to be processes locally. The result is, up to 40 percent quicker response time, for smart home commands. Smart lights will turn on, or off, quicker. The Echo Hub has the versatility of table-top or wall-mount installation, and is geared more for family use – control the smart home, quickly access shared lists, stream music and more. This works with the Zigbee, Sidewalk, Thread, Bluetooth, and Matter smart home standards.
There is no confirmation, for now, which of the new Echo and Fire TV devices will go on sale in India. And when. Or how much they will cost. For context, the global pricing pegs the Echo Show 8 at $149.99 onwards (around ₹12,400), the Echo Hub at $179.99 with the table stand as a separately purchasable accessory, the Echo Frames start at $269.99 while the new Fire TV Stick 4K costs $49.99 while the Fire TV Stick 4K Max is priced at $59.99.