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September 8, 2017

What is Alexa? It’s Amazon’s new virtual assistant

by John_A

If you own an Amazon device (or have been on the internet in the last year), you’ve probably heard the name “Alexa.” It’s the name you call out when you have a question — provided you own an Amazon Echo. Amazon’s virtual assistant has been integrated into several of the company’s products and is starting to find its way into third-party devices, like this GE lamp. This voice-activated virtual assistant can perform a variety of simple tasks, like playing music, but it can also be used to control smart-home gadgets, giving it the ability to dim the lights, lock the doors, or adjust the thermostat.

While “Alexa” has become synonymous with products like the Amazon Echo and has been a major selling point for devices like the Amazon Fire TV, you can’t actually go out and buy an “Alexa.” So what is Alexa exactly? Here’s everything you need to know about Amazon’s virtual assistant.

Who is Alexa?

For most people, all you really have to know about Alexa is that it’s the name of Amazon’s virtual assistant. Basically, Alexa is to Amazon what “Siri” is to Apple. You can ask it questions, such as “what is the weather today in Chicago?” or assign it to perform a host of differing tasks. Alexa has been integrated into many of Amazon’s services and can be used with products such as the Amazon Echo and Amazon Fire TV.

But really, what exactly is Alexa? When you ask Alexa question, what you’re really doing is communicating with a cloud-based service. Amazon has designed the Alexa Voice Service (AVS) to mimic real conversations, but you’re actually using intuitive voice commands to get this service to perform specific tasks. “Alexa” is simply the “wake word” that alerts the service to start listening to your voice. For most devices, you just have to say it to get a response, but with the Tap, you’ll need to press a button to make it start listening.

Here’s how Amazon describes the Alexa Voice Service on its developer page:

“The Alexa Voice Service (AVS) is Amazon’s intelligent voice recognition and natural language understanding service that allows you to voice-enable any connected device that has a microphone and speaker.”

While Alexa is the official name for Amazon’s voice assistant, you can change this wake word to “Amazon” or “Echo.” That’s a useful feature, especially if your own name happens to be Alexa.

Why Alexa?

Apple has Siri. Google Home comes alive when you say “OK, Google.” And Amazon has Alexa. But why? According to David Limp, the Amazon executive who oversaw the development of the service, the name “Alexa” was chosen for a few reasons. First, the name “Alexa” harks back to the Library of Alexandria, which attempted to collect all of the world’s knowledge. Amazon is attempting to do the same thing. Alexa is always learning but, in theory, it should be a seamless source of information.

More practically, the service was named Alexa because it contains the uncommon “X” sound. Since this service is voice-activated, Amazon wanted to choose a name that wouldn’t get confused with other words that could accidentally awaken the device:

“We did go through a number of names and the name is important as much for the personality that it creates around the persona than is this computer-based voice computer in the cloud. But there’s computer science behind it, too,” said Limp. “If any of you have Echoes, you know that it only wakes up when it hears the word “Alexa,” and the phonics of that word and how that word is parsed and the fact that it has a hard consonant with the ‘X’ in it, is important in making sure that it wakes up only when it’s asked for. And so, a combination of those two things allowed us to kind of narrow in on Alexa.”

Where can I use Alexa?

In order to use Alexa, you’ll need a device that can access it. This typically means an Amazon device, such as an Echo, Dot, or Tap, but this cloud-based personal voice assistant has also been integrated with some third-party systems. The Fire TV is also compatible with Alexa, as are some third-party devices: Invoxia’s Triby, a portable speaker, and the Nucleus intercom. Ford recently announced three of its car models will talk to Amazon’s assistant. Want to talk to Alexa through your watch? There’s the Martian mVoice. Someone even programmed Alexa to work with a Big Mouth Billy Bass.

Alexa has also become the center of many smart-home systems, including Wink, SmartThings, and the Logitech Harmony. You can also use the voice-assistant to build your smart home piecemeal, as Alexa can also pair with hubless devices such as WeMo switches and Nest thermostats.

Here’s a list of smart-home devices that are compatible with Alexa.

What can Alexa do?

The list of commands that Alexa can understand seems to grow on a daily basis. There are now over 3,200 so far, all found in the Skills Marketplace. Amazon calls these “skills,” and claimed in June that the AI possessed more than 1,000 of these. The number of tasks that Alexa can accomplish is clearly more than we can list in this article, but here are some of our favorites:

  • Find recipes and give you audible step-by-step directions with the AllRecipes skill.
  • Control your Neato Smart Vacuum. 
  • Narrate a Kindle book to you. 
  • Get movie showtimes or sports schedules.
  • Order pizza and find nearby restaurants.
  • Pay your bills with the Capital One app. 
  • Order pretty much anything online. 
  • Give pregnancy advice. 
  • Track your Amazon packages. 

If you want to learn more about Alexa, all you have to do is ask: “Alexa, what’s new with you?”

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