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The Inspiration For Alexa, And Other Cool Echo-flections

In a pitch to vendors, developers and service providers to hitch their ride to Amazon’s ubiquitous virtual digital assistant, Alexa smart home director Charlie Kindel (yes, his name’s Kindel) provided a 45-minute peek under Echo’s hood during a CES 2017 conference session last week.

The former Windows Phone developer described the natural interaction of Alexa’s voice-control technology as a major inflection point in the evolution of computer interfaces, which over the last 40 years have evolved from character mode to GUI to the World Wide Web to mobile.

Today, he said, the world stands at the precipice of the next major computing disruption as Alexa’s voice user interface and other sensor-based technologies allow people to interact with machines the same way they interact with each other.

But getting there wasn’t easy. The Alexa team’s original pie-in-the sky goal, Kindel explained, was to recreate the Star Trek computer in the home. But working backwards from that vision required “a heavy-duty investment” in numerous disciplines ranging from beam-forming microphone technology and neural networks to deep learning and artificial intelligence in order for devices to recognize speech, relay that information to the cloud, process it, and stream it back to the device with no lag time while maintaining strict security protocols.

Alexa first took form in Echo, Amazon’s breakthrough wireless speaker, and later made its way into the e-tailer’s other proprietary OTT and handheld devices including Fire TVs and tablets, as well as smaller Echo offshoots (the portable Tap and diminutive Dot).

In its initial stage, Alexa could play music; provide the weather, news and time; create a shopping list; set a timer or alarm; and perform other “routine” tasks by request.

But since opening up the platform to developers with free APIs, Alexa has morphed into an ecosystem of some 7,000 applications, or “skills,” ranging from novelty interactions like bathroom sound effects and Magic 8-Ball prophecies, to Alexa embeds in third-party products like smart-home devices, major appliances and cars. (All three categories saw major announcements at CES last week from companies including Whirlpool, LG Home Appliances and Ford.)

In smart home, some 180 vendors are employing the platform to allow consumers to control lighting, shades, door locks, thermostats, sprinkler systems and other household functions by voice, which has been a boon to consumers and manufacturers if not custom installers. “It used to be that to have a smart home you had to be either extremely rich or extremely geeky,” Kindel said. “Today, virtually anything that can be interacted with digitally can be supported.”

And that’s just the beginning. Despite enthusiastic feedback from consumers, Kindel conceded that the platform still falls short in many ways, and that Amazon and the Alexa team regard this stage in their creation’s development as “day one.”

“But the speed of improvements is accelerating,” he said, and Alexa’s growing sophistication, even within the next six months to a year, promises to be startling.

Beam me up, Charlie!