What's wrong with Alexa: Former insider on the challenges facing Amazon's AI voice assistant

What’s wrong with Alexa: Former insider on the challenges facing Amazon’s AI voice assistant

Dave Limp, head of Amazon’s Devices & Services division, in 2019. (GeekWire Photo/Kevin Lisota)

Amazon quickly created the initial technical scaffolding for Alexa, quickly taking the lead in the smart speaker and home voice assistant market. But nearly a decade later, Alexa is still under construction.

Tigger (Charlie) Kindel led Alexa product management before building the Alexa smart home team.

It is the prospect of Tigger (Charlie) Kindela tech industry veteran from Seattle who worked at Amazon from 2013 to 2018, leading Alexa product management before creating the Alexa smart home technology team.

Kindel is now a consultant and start-up advisor in areas such as space exploration. But he’s still an avid Alexa user who follows the industry closely and supports his former team.

“The fundamentals are still broken,” Kindel said. “They couldn’t focus on fixing a lot of the things that we built early on that we knew were scaffolding because we were moving very fast. And we’re shipping prototypes. And those prototypes are now the fundamentals of the how Alexa works, and they’re fragile.

We reached out to Kindel this week for their perspective as Amazon resets its strategy for Alexa and Echo. The company is making widespread layoffs to its Devices & Services team amid reports that the division is losing up to $10 billion a year.

Listen below and keep reading for edited highlights and major takeaways.

The basics of Alexa have not evolved. “I left Amazon in 2018. And as far as I can tell, the fundamentals of how Alexa works haven’t improved. It’s a much larger ecosystem and a much larger set of abilities and devices. There was a time when Jeff [Bezos] said he wanted every square on the chessboard to be filled. And it certainly happened. But they barely touch the board.

Amazon has tried to do too much with Alexa, for too long. “It’s a deliberate strategy. And I think for a while that was the right strategy. But for the past two years, that was not the case. … You’re not just trying to ship new features, but designing and fixing everything and keeping the lights on for whatever you’ve already released. You are constantly recruiting tons of new people. And it wears down the organization when it reaches that scale.

Overall industry progress in voice interaction has stalled. “If you look at Google Assistant or Siri, they suffer from the same thing. I think it’s fundamental technology. Maybe we fooled ourselves in 2015-2016 thinking that we were going to fix these last issues very quickly. They have not been resolved. It’s still not a great experience for a lot of customers.

Resetting and refocusing the Alexa team is the right decision. “I would drastically reduce the size of the organization, I would take a step back. And I would say we’re going to spend some time going back to basics and making sure that the existing customers that we have who are using the product are really happy. And through that, we’ll find those things that we can monetize and we’ll be able to figure out how to fund that going forward.

Voice interfaces hold promise in the long term. “As a civilization, we will continue to move closer and closer to computers that can interact with us in the same way that we interact with each other. It will continue to happen. And there are going to be breakthroughs. … I’m surprised over the past two years there haven’t been any “big bangs” that have come out of any of the tech giants in this regard, but they will come. I’m optimistic.”

Amazon CEO Andy Jassy answered a question about Alexa from journalist Andrew Ross Sorkin during the New York Times DealBook Summit on Wednesday morning. Jassy said there had been “erroneous reports” on this subject in recent weeks, adding that Alexa was “driving a lot of online purchases”.

“If we’re trying to build the best smart speaker, it’s going to be a different investment than what we’re trying to do, which is to build the best AI or personal assistant in the world,” Jassy said.

He added: “It’s a much bigger investment. And we really believe in this vision. And we like the traction and where we are. But it’s not a two-year view, it’s a multi-year view, like a lot of the big bets we make. »

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