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Amazon is looking to tap generative AI to reignite excitement about its home devices, including the Alexa voice assistant, against a backdrop of job cuts in the company’s hardware division.
Amazon’s longtime head of devices, Dave Limp, on Wednesday said generative AI — which has fuelled debates globally about the future of work, security and regulation — would “drive an entirely new Alexa experience” and usher into life a “smarter and more conversational” voice assistant.
While Amazon’s gadgets and devices arm was a personal passion for founder Jeff Bezos, the retail giant’s chief executive Andy Jassy has appeared less excited about the division. Limp is set to step down from his job before the end of the year.
The Alexa team was hit with significant lay-offs last year as executives scrutinised the product’s direct contribution to the company’s bottom line. Amazon does not break out the profitability of its devices segment in its quarterly earnings.
Although Alexa devices have been bestsellers during Amazon’s Prime Day sales, users have typically not made use of most of the tens of thousands of Alexa “skills”.
Meanwhile, some other hardware experiments, such as the Amazon Astro, a household robot designed to be paired with Alexa, and the Scout delivery robot, did not take off.
At the company’s devices event on Wednesday, Limp unveiled his vision for the future of Alexa, which he said would be powered by generative AI and based on a new, custom-built large language model.
Alexa would be able to respond more quickly and naturally to questions and commands, and the experience would be “just like talking to another human being”, he said.
For example, using a new “let’s chat” feature, users would be able to interrupt Alexa to give the assistant more precise instructions or change a request, without having to use the “Alexa” command. The voice assistant would respond to updated prompts quickly and without recalibrating, as a person would do, and would also be able to infer the meaning of and answers to less specific questions.
The generative AI-driven upgrades would also include a better search function on Amazon’s Fire TV, the company said. For example, users would be able to ask to see movies “I don’t have to pay for” or that “I haven’t seen yet”, or ask for recommendations based on who had starred in a show and whether it won major awards.
While “cynics might not have believed” that technology would transform how people lived at home when Alexa was launched a decade ago, “this paradigm is here to stay”, Limp said. The integration of generative AI to the devices would not come at the expense of security or privacy, which were front of mind for the team, he added.
By making generative AI a focus of the presentation, Amazon is joining Big Tech peers such as Google and Microsoft in putting the fast-developing technology at the centre of its cornerstone products as it attempts to capitalise on the hype surrounding the sector.
Analysts at UBS in September said Amazon could improve its North American margins as the company reduced investments in “moonshots” such as Alexa and focused on efficiencies, among other things.