Monday, July 22, 2024

Alexa to get supercharged with AI

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Alexa can now handle multiple requests in a list.Phil Nickinson / Digital Trends

Siri isn’t the only digital assistant getting an AI update in the near future. According to sources speaking to Reuters, Amazon is reportedly planning an expansive update for its decade-old digital conversationalist that would implement a two-tier service subscription that could cost users $5 t0 $10 per month.

The new voice assistant, dubbed “Remarkable Alexa” per the sources, could arrive as soon as August 2024. The project, code-named “Banyan” after the species of large ficus tree, has become something of a pet project for CEO Andy Jassy, who promised a “more intelligent and capable Alexa” to shareholders in an April letter. The sources warned, however, that the rumored pricing and release dates could shift as we get closer to August, depending on how well the project comes together prior to that deadline.

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“We have already integrated generative AI into different components of Alexa, and are working hard on implementation at scale — in the over half-a-billion ambient, Alexa-enabled devices already in homes around the world — to enable even more proactive, personal, and trusted assistance for our customers,” an Amazon spokeswoman told Reuters in a statement. Utilized primarily in Amazon TVs and Echo speakers, Alexa is most often leveraged to perform simple tasks like setting timers, remotely controlling smart home devices, reporting the weather, and answering basic user queries.

The Alexa service has long been a money pit for Amazon, having not turned a profit in any year since its debut in 2014. Like much of the rest of the industry, Amazon was caught on its heels with the release and immediate popularity of ChatGPT in 2022.

However, as other companies like Microsoft, Google, and Apple have quickly scrambled to release generative AI systems of their own, Amazon has been slow to integrate generative AI technology into its products in any meaningful way. As such, Reuters’ sources have relayed that senior management considers 2024 a “must win” year for Alexa, despite hundreds of workers having been cut from that division in late 2023.

Amazon did show of a host of prototype generative AI features during its annual device event held in Seattle last September, however, none of those functions have yet to make it into a device available to consumers. The new Remarkable Alexa would replace the current free version, what the Alexa team internally refers to as “Classic Alexa” with a separate, but still free generative AI model.

Those willing to shell out the monthly $5 to $10 fee would gain access to a more powerful model capable of answering more complex questions, drafting basic emails, and ordering food through Uber Eats — all from a single prompt and without the need to chant “Alexa” at the start of each command.

There’s no word yet on whether the subscription will offer tie-ins to Amazon’s existing $140-per-year Prime service. Whether people will be willing to start paying for a product that they were already enjoying for free — and one which can be easily replaced by any number of more capable alternatives like Siri, Gemini, or ChatGPT — remains to be seen as well.

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