Who Is Alexa — and What Does Amazon's Virtual Assistant Say About the Future of AI?

By Jamie GreysonLast Updated Feb 23, 2021 11:40:45 PM ET
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More likely than not, you’ve asked a virtual assistant to Google something for you; adjust your music; or add an appointment to your in-phone calendar. From Apple’s Siri to the ever-handy Google Assistant, these AI helpers are here to lend a (nonexistent) hand. These days, one of the most popular virtual assistants is Amazon’s Alexa, which is now in millions of homes across the globe.

When it comes to setting timers and alarms, tapping into your at-home security cameras, reordering your Amazon staples or emceeing your workout playlist, Alexa is more than adept. But how did this now-ubiquitous virtual assistant come to be? And, perhaps more pressingly, are smart home features like Alexa safe?

What Is Amazon’s Alexa?

As mentioned earlier, intelligent virtual assistants — or artificial intelligence (A.I.) assistants — are commonplace these days. Using an A.I. system, these assistants, like Siri or Google Assistant, emulate human interactions and complete tasks for us. First introduced in 2014, Alexa is Amazon’s foray into the virtual assistant realm. While Apple’s Siri is known for being in the palm of your hand a la your iPhone, Amazon’s Alexa — and Alexa Voice Services (AVS) — can be found in an abundance of the company’s smart tech products, including various iterations of the Amazon Echo as well as the Amazon Fire TV.

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But the smart home functionality doesn’t stop with your devices. In fact, Alexa-enabled light switches, security cameras, speakers, lamps, thermostats, and soundbars are used by millions. So, what can Alexa do to help? The possibilities are (almost) endless, especially considering that the Alexa Skill Kit allows you to mold the virtual assistant’s features to your particular lifestyle needs.

Some of the AI’s most popular features include:

  • Finding recipes
  • Reading to you
  • Order takeout
  • Giving advice
  • Answering questions
  • Solving math problems
  • Translating words
  • Tracking Amazon packages
  • Providing news updates
  • Reading your emails
  • Calling or messaging contacts, no typing needed
  • Setting up reminders, timers and alarms
  • Enabling video cameras for security purposes
  • Integrating with smart-home tech, including lights, speakers, alarms and more
  • Shopping (and re-ordering) products online
  • Accessing music, videos and other content
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Who Is the Voice of Alexa?

So, why did Amazon call its virtual assistant Alexa? According to the company, it’s a tribute to the Library of Alexandria, which, centuries ago, was intended to hold the world’s knowledge. Much like this ancient library, Alexa collects information — and learns. An added bonus? The letter "X" isn’t all that common in the English language, which makes things a little less confusing since saying, "Alexa" actually "wakes up" your virtual assistant.

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Of course, if you know an Alexa, you can change that "wake word" to something less commonplace. Still, that moniker is what the virtual assistant is known as — and it’s the default name. So, is there a voice actor behind Amazon’s virtual assistant? According to Alexa’s creator, Amazon exec Toni Reid, the virtual assistant’s voice actually comes from text-to-speech technology. That is, there isn’t a real person behind that default Alexa voice.

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Still, the voice has been coded female — or, in other words, voice that expresses what are typically thought of in western society as feminine traits. This choice certainly underlines the gender bias that has seeped into A.I. "An algorithm is an opinion expressed in code," Ivana Bartoletti, founder of the networking group Women Leading in A.I., told The Guardian. "If it’s mostly men developing the algorithm, then of course the results will be biased… You’re teaching the machine how to make a decision." All of this to say, intelligent voice assistants are doing the not-so-smart thing of continuing to normalize the subservience of women, especially since the bulk of our exchanges with these assistants boils down to commands.

While other virtual assistants, like Siri and Google Assistant, allow you to change the default voice and accents, Amazon has taken things a step further. Recently, the company has employed celebrities, like Avengers star Samuel L. Jackson, to lend their voices to the technology. Using a "‘neural text-to-speech’ engine to mimic celebrities' voices on Alexa-powered devices," Amazon will "use recordings the stars provide as the basis for other computer-generated utterances" (via BBC). In other words, if you’ve ever wanted Jackson to "roast you" or quote Pulp Fiction, that’s now a possibility. In the near future, Amazon plans to add more celeb voices to Alexa’s roster.

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Is Amazon’s Virtual Assistant Safe?

As with any new technology, Alexa has been met with some mistrust and uncertainty. (After all, we all remember Disney Channel’s Smart House, right?) Still, that hasn’t deterred millions from purchasing an Alexa-powered device. In fact, according to NBC News, an impressive "one-quarter of American households now have an Amazon Echo powered by Alexa."

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In 2018, a Portland family raised some serious concerns about Alexa and their personal security. "My husband and I would joke and say I'd bet these devices are listening to what we're saying," Danielle [redacted] told a local news outlet. But that joke evolved into something much more concerning: During a conversation about hardwood floors, someone in the household uttered something that sounded like Alexa, the virtual assistant’s "wake word." Once activated, the device heard the couple say something about sending a message, so it dutifully recorded their conversation and forwarded it to someone on their contact list. Not optimal. Danielle called the moment "a total privacy invasion," and although it was an easily traceable mistake, it still gave many would-be Echo owners pause.

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Reportedly, Alexa isn’t recording your conversations to spy on you. Instead, the assistant is recording for short bursts of time, so that what you say is sent back to the Amazon computer system; this information is then used to provide you with an answer or help complete a task. "Amazon says it keeps our recordings to improve products, not to sell them," technology columnist Geoffrey A. Fowler wrote in The Washington Post — a paper owned by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. "But anytime personal data sticks around, it’s a risk."

"Alexa is always getting smarter, which is only possible by training [the virtual assistant] with voice recordings to better understand requests, provide more accurate responses, and personalize the customer experience," Beatrice Geoffrin, director of Alexa privacy, said in a statement. But is better customer service really worth that invasion of privacy — that supposedly encrypted archive of conversations you’ve had with Alexa?

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Alexa and the Future of A.I.

If you’ve ever wondered what a smart home of the future will look like, Alexa has made all of those Space Age imaginings feel all the more feasible, instead of just some sci-fi pipe dream. In addition to smart televisions, cameras, home security systems, soundbars, and lighting, Alexa, and other virtual assistants, is entering the world of appliances and cars as well.

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Have you ever wanted to speak to your fridge or oven? Alexa will be able to help with that. Meanwhile, Amazon has also struck a deal with major auto manufacturers, ensuring that it’s Each Auto technology will bring all that virtual assistant convenience and functionality on the road. Without a doubt, Alexa’s voice-activated technology is here to stay. And the potential of these virtual assistants will just keep growing.

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