Today, Amazon unveiled a massive upgrade to Alexa, with demos showing a more human-sounding and smarter digital assist able to understand context and personal preferences. The upgrade will come as a “free preview” on all devices — including the original Echo — at a later time.
Amazon is hoping this improved Alexa will inspire more conversational interactions with the digital assistant. The upgrades come at a time when interest in artificial intelligence is at a fevered pitch with the rise of ChatGPT and generative AI systems. While Alexa has been a mainstay in home for nearly a decade, the current iteration of the digital assistant feels quaint next to these newer AI systems.
Dave Limp, the outgoing head of Amazon’s devices and services business, first demoed the new Alexa with a conversation about the football, allowing for a multi-question conversation that didn’t require the use of the wake word each time. You could also interrupt Alexa to change the question, and it understood your preferences. But Limp’s demo had some initial hiccups, with the executive needing to repeat two questions initially.
“It is just the beginning, and it’ll get better over time,” he said.
Thanks partly to Alexa, Amazon dominates the smart home market, where both Apple and Google also play, each with their own digital assistants. All of them are in a race to make their assistant the smartest and most approachable, with the belief that the relationship formed with a customer will be critical for future services.
“It will feel like talking to a human being, with the same latency as talking to a human,” said Rohit Prasad, senior vice president and head scientist for AI for Amazon.
The new capabilities are flowing into other products. This includes a more natural way to find shows on Fire TV. You will now be able to say things like, “show me action movies that are free and that I haven’t seen before.”
Now, with this new let’s chat feature, once you start a conversation with Alexa, you won’t need to keep saying Alexa first. As long as you keep looking at your Echo, it will know you are talking to Alexa after you start a conversation. You will be able to turn this feature off.
You will also be able to use your eyes to control the Alexa, starting with the Fire Max 11 Tablet. This will allow those who are unable to use their hands or speech to use Alexa just with the movements of their eyes. This feature will be rolled out in the future.
Amazon also unveiled a number of new capabilities for Alexa:
- Automatic Lighting: Later this year, Alexa will be able to detect the brightness level and activity in a room, and intelligently decide to turn the lights on or off. You no longer need to walk into a dark room and search for a light switch—or even ask Alexa to do it for you. Customers should look for motion and ambient light sensors that have the Works with Alexa (WWA) badge to enable this feature once available. Select Echo devices with motion and ambient light sensors will also support this feature soon, including the Echo Dot (5th Gen).
- Eye gaze on Alexa: This feature is our first foray in supporting customers with mobility or speech disabilities to use Alexa with their eyes. Instead of using voice or touch, eye gaze on Alexa will allow customers to gaze at their tablet to perform pre-set Alexa actions, like playing music and shows, controlling their home environment, and even communicating with loved ones—entirely hands, and voice, free. We’re excited about the potential for eye gaze on Alexa as we continue to evolve the experience based on customer feedback, as well as feedback from our partners United Ability and United Spinal. Eye gaze on Alexa will start rolling out to customers at no additional cost later this year on Fire Max 11 tablets in the U.S., UK, Germany, and Japan.
- Call Translation: Today’s families are more dispersed and multi-cultural than ever before. With Call Translation, your Alexa audio and video calls can be captioned in real time, allowing call participants to break down language barriers and communicate more effectively. This feature also allows deaf and hard of hearing customers to communicate remotely more easily. This feature will launch to Echo Show customers and on the Alexa mobile app in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, UK, Germany, France, Italy, and Spain later this year, in over 10 languages including English, Spanish, French, German, and Portuguese. We’re always eager to learn from our customers. We know we can continue to make our accessibility experiences better and more affordable, so we’re excited to build a more accessible future. To learn more and share feedback visit www.amazon.com/accessibility.
- Alexa Emergency Assist: Get help fast—just ask, “Alexa, call for help.” Alexa Emergency Assist will enable anyone in your home to get fast access to help, hands free through a supported Echo device. We’ve taken the top features customers know and love from Alexa Guard and Guard Plus to create the ultimate at-home hands-free safety service, with features like 24/7 Urgent Response, Smart Alerts, and Emergency Contacts to help keep everyone you care about safe while at home or away. Soon new U.S. customers can subscribe to Alexa Emergency Assist for $5.99 per month or $59 per year, and Guard Plus customers will instead get access to Alexa Emergency Protect for $4.99 per month or $49.99 per year. For more information on subscription cost, please visit Amazon.com/AlexaEmergencyAssist.
- Explore with Alexa: Explore with Alexa is a new conversational experience for Amazon Kids+ on Echo devices that combines entertaining facts and trivia questions to fuel deeper curiosity and exploration. Coming before the holidays, when kids ask Alexa a question about animals and nature, Alexa will respond with information adapted from trusted sources and encourage kids to keep exploring a topic. For the first phase of this new kids experience, the Alexa Kids science and engineering team leveraged large language model technology to adapt Alexa’s trusted knowledge base into kid-friendly fun facts and trivia questions. Learn more here.
- You can read more about these new Alexa features here.
This also comes as Amazon announced a new Echo Show 8, but all of these features will be available on all Echo devices, including the very first generation Echo.
The Echo Show 8 features a new design with a centered camera to better aligned the 8-inch display. It also features better audio with a spatial audio processor integrated into the rear speaker. It will cost $149.99 and comes out next month. You can order one today.