Amazon is launching a new program that will let its customers answer some of the questions Alexa can't answer on its own. It's called Alexa Answers and starting today, the company will begin inviting select customers to field some of the more difficult questions posed to Amazon's assistant. "While Alexa can answer the vast majority of questions customers are asking every day," Bill Barton, Amazon's VP of Alexa Information, wrote in a blog post, "every once in a while, customers throw curve balls at us with various questions like'Where was Barbara Bush buried?' or'Who wrote the score for Lord of the Rings?' or'What's cork made out of?' or'Where do bats go in the winter?'" The company has been testing the Alexa Answers program internally, and in the past month, it has added more than 100,000 responses. Going forward, customers who have been invited to participate will be able to scroll through topic categories on the Alexa Answers website, choose questions they want to answer and submit a response.
Alexa, Google Assistant, Siri, and Cortana can answer all sorts of questions that pop into users' heads, and they're improving every day. But what happens when a company like Amazon decides to crowdsource answers to fill gaps in its platform's knowledge? The result can range from amusing and perplexing to concerning. Alexa Answers allows any Amazon customer to submit responses to unanswered questions. When the web service launched in general availability a few weeks ago, Amazon gave assurances that submissions would be policed through a combination of automatic and manual review.
Amazon wants to minimize the impediments its customers face in using its services. A new tool for Alexa skills that is described in Amazon's developer blog enables the smart voice assistant to answer customers' natural language questions. Soon users won't need to query using the prescribed "Alexa-speak." The company's goal is to make Alexa friction-free. Similar to one-click ordering, Amazon Prime, and Amazon Go, removing barriers to customer interaction with Alexa will encourage more engagement.
When Amazon introduced Alexa in 2014, it quickly discovered that users wanted more than traffic reports and Taylor Swift songs. According to the company, more than 50% of interactions with Alexa are "nonutilitarian and entertainment related," a category that includes professions of love for the female-voiced AI assistant, admissions of loneliness and sadness and requests for a joke. Amazon has sold more than 15 million Echo devices and now owns 75% of the smart-speaker market, according to estimates by Consumer Intelligence Research Partners, which puts this company on the front lines of what might be called early-stage AI therapy, in which a device is asked to respond to extremely personal questions and requests by its users. And while experts say that technology companies likely don't have a legal responsibility when it comes to potential user harm, many see an ethical obligation to consider how to help. Amazon is training Alexa to respond to sensitive questions and statements.
Amazon is making another push to bring Alexa into the workplace with the official launch of Alexa for Business Blueprints and a dedicated business category on the Blueprints website. Amazon rolled out Alexa for Business more than a year ago and has steadily added features via AWS. Skill Blueprints were launched in April 2018 as a way to allow anyone to create skills and publish them to the Alexa Skills Store. In February, Amazon opened the Alexa Skills program up to businesses, publishers and brands, but this latest effort expands the business pitch significantly. With new private business skills, including the Business Q&A and Onboard Guide Blueprints, businesses can create voice-activated productivity services specific, and exclusive, to their company.