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[dupe] Amazon’s roadmap for Alexa is scarier than anything Facebook or Twitter is doing (thenextweb.com)
79 points by notkaiho 24 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 72 comments

Original article discussed earlier:


Now this article is marked as [dupe] and won't appear in HN's pagination. Shouldn't the comments be merged into the original then?

Meh. I've owned an Alexa for a few years and I've been pretty underwhelmed.

Most of its functionality was pretty useless once the novelty factor wore off. I don't have a smarthome or anything crazy like that, so the extent of useful functionality remaining is setting timers by speaking while i'm cooking, and asking about weather when I'm in a rush in the morning.

Even that it performs poorly. Sometimes it just starts talking when I didn't address it, which is annoying. Often it cant hear me from the next room over, which is annoying. It has difficulty understanding accents which is annoying.

I've certainly never found it would be more convenient to use for making amazon purchases as opposed to using my computer or phone, and I don't subscribe to any music service, which alexa bugs me about every time I tried using it for playing music, so I just don't do that anymore.

Even the most simple novelty commands ("alexa bark") have managed to find ads attached to them in recent months (really. She advertises some advanced bark skill to me).

If Alexa started summoning me it would be unplugged that day.

I do have a bunch of smart home gadgets (most rooms in the house have Philips hue, some smart plugs for things like a christmas tree, a smart Air Conditioner, plus the xbox control skill) I also have 2 Echos and 2 Google home (nest home?!) products.

In my experience Alexa sucks at voice recognition in creatively bad ways. Most importantly, if I want to turn on lights for a room, it has taken to making a very subtle variant of the room I asked for and then goes into a lengthy 'I could not find the room 'living rooms' what device did you mean?' (or my personal favorite, turning off the Xbox instead which turns off the tv, while you sit there dumbfounded staring at the off TV now[It sometimes turns our tv on if I turn on the bedroom lights too!]) But she says it rather slow and it's really annoying as you wait the extra 10 seconds. In most cases it would be faster to get up and actually use the light switch.

To think this is actually much better than it used to be, back at 1.0 it was very bad, finding things very far off or responding to 'turn on living room' with 'According to webster's, a living room is a room where..' Obviously the only response as a human is: 'I KNOW WHAT A LIVING ROOM IS, I'M IN A DARK ONE, I WANT IT TO BE BRIGHTER.'

The Google(NEST?!) home works great and is generally right, but saying 'okay google' is pretty dumb. (also creepy)

I prefer muscle memory before voice battle any day of the week.

Agreed. We have three Alexa devices, our thermostat, the fridge magnet one, and a regular one. All are turned off or muted in the case of the thermostat. At best we don't find it useful and at worst it's annoying.

My Alexa performs really poorly. I converted my house into a smart home (with devices I made, as I don't trust the average vendor), and she's handy for turning devices on and off, but she even gets that wrong sometimes. My wife will be asleep and I'll say "Alexa, lights off" and she'll hear "lights on" and the house goes full brightness.

Don't get me started on playing music, she's useless for that. Yesterday I asked her to play a song fifteen times before I got angry and gave up at her inability to understand what I'm saying.

I find the Alexa pretty useful having small children. Being able to change the thermostat, turn on and off lights, start white noise for the baby, play music for the kids, all without having to have my hands free is nice.

I set up a nap routine for my baby's room where it turns off the lights and starts the white noise.

"If you’re one of the eight or nine people on the planet who has never interacted with Alexa"

I love when people live in a bubble. I know exactly one person who has a voice assistant, and it's not even Alexa.

I've personally never used my voice to interact with any technology in any capacity. Whenever I see people try to talk to their phones it inevitably does something different than what they had wanted so they have to touch the device anyway. I've assumed it was a gimmick since its inception so I find it hard to believe that such a large percentage of people actually use it to make things easier.

Voice interfaces remind me of trying to solve a puzzle in Zork or MUDs: you have basically an open-ended command line and you have to remember incantations and get lucky when you try to stitch them together in novel ways.

Like you're at a locked door in a MUD and you have a key in your inventory. "put key in lock", "insert key into lock", "unlock door", "put key in padlock", -- these all fail. Then you ask around and someone tells you you need to use "push key into door". And you wonder if you would've even come up with that in 1000 tries.

That's how I've felt when using Siri and Alexa. It feels precarious.

And I feel the opposite. I don't use any voice assistants(I would like to try setting up my own open source one though), but more and more people around me are getting echos, or regularly use Siri or Google Assistant.

Perhaps we live in our own tech bubble where many people understand the downsides of the technology. Since it's more likely to surround yourself with similar people it's easy to assume most people (don't) use it.

The number of people in my close circle using this tech has been pretty much constant over the past few years, hovering at 2. The rest try and discard.

You know exactly one person who owns an iPhone?

Well, two, but neither one of them uses Siri.

I find it weird people cannot understand, some dont see a point in using an assistant. Most productive people i know actually completely negate those "fancy" techs and stick to known old stuff. And those are not grandpas but 30-35yr olds.

We just upgraded to the newest Samsung TV, and the voice integration is incredibly useless.

You could ask for "netflix" (but the remote has a dedicated button for this!) but you cannot search for a specific movie, you cannot speak to enter your username/password or enter data in any text inputs. You cannot even pause any of the streaming apps (maybe you can pause if playing from the USB stick).

Every so often, generally when Android updates, I give Google's assistant a try. It's awful. It never fails to understand me, and after manually correcting it, the assistant fails to find items that are _on_ the device; if it's not on Google's cloud services, then it doesn't exist, apparently.

I'm over 50. I use Alexa and Siri every day. Of course, I've always been this way. I've heard that the old thing "does everything I want it do it" for decades.

There are plenty of people on the Internet, for example, explaining why electric cars won't work for them today because they need to drive 500 miles every Monday...

People think we'll have self-driving cars within a decade but voice assistants will remain primitive?

Now that there's a financial incentive to improve voice user interfaces (VUI), they will improve rapidly. Hopefully, there will be a great open source option (like Linux), but I'm not waiting... After watching Star Trek and HAL as a child, I thought we'd be talking with computers decades ago.

Comparing voice assistant to an electric car is like comparing ebook to a private jet..

Do you think the technology in a voice assistant is in the hardware device on your counter?

The Deep Learning in natural language processing is probably more difficult than in self-driving cars.

Language processing can compare inputs to stored voice samples.

It is simpler than self driving cars which have to navigate a completely dynamic environment with many autonomous actors and make good decisions very quickly.

well most interaction with these assistants is usually in the form of voice and many prize their privacy.

Voice, with results sourced from their cloud storage.

I know a lot of people with androids and iphones. Nobody uses Siri and GA. I know of nobody with alexa.

I guess it mostly show the tech and tech adjacent bubble.

Of most tech privacy concerns, this one seems like the least of my worries.

Because after 5 years, Alexa still doesn't work well enough for most people except to set a kitchen timer, play music, or check the outdoor temperature.

So a more "proactive" Alexa will realistically mean... what? Probably nothing more than the kind of notifications you might get on your phone already, only spoken. At best, "Leave early for your commute because traffic is bad." or "You might be running out of toilet paper, should I order more?"

If even that. Google knows a lot about me -- it can infer events from my e-mail, commutes from my Maps usage, etc. All Amazon knows is what I shop for and maybe occasionally watch on TV. Not a whole lot to be proactive about there.

> Because after 5 years, Alexa still doesn't work well enough for most people except to set a kitchen timer, play music, or check the outdoor temperature.

Same with the others. Google's seems to be the best, but it's still not great. Given where we were with custom-trained (to your own voice) locally-processed speech-to-text almost 20 friggin' years ago, it's hard to imagine that wouldn't be at least as good as the spying cloud AI mumbo-jumbo by now, had those being available and "free" not taken all the money, interest, and talent away from that.

The fundamental problem is that, while the voice recognition isn't bad, the assistants are all pretty much incapable of performing any sort of complex task or even not so complex tasks for which you haven't memorized a fairly precise incantation.

The very worst admin I've ever had is still about 1000x more capable than one of these voice assistants.

I got a free Google home mini last year for buying some other thing...I was blown away by how truly bad it is compared to what the marketing leads people to believe. It's honestly useless for most of the tasks they advertise it being able to do. Most of the calendar functions only work 50% of the time. It can set timers pretty consistently. Sometimes I can get it to change the thermostat. It usually plays the music I ask for. More often than not it takes 2-3 different tries before I can word my request in a way that it will understand.

Honestly if I had paid for it I would have probably wanted my money back. Maybe that's why they are giving them out for free.

Yeah, kitchen timers & alarms are about the only thing Siri gets right often enough that it's not less work, on average, to just go do what you need to do with tappy-tappies instead.

> "If you’re one of the eight or nine people on the planet who has never interacted with Alexa"

What?? Replace "planet" with "United States". I doubt outside Europe and North America Alexa is that pervasive. I only know one person who has it in their home, and I know a bunch of rich people who shop at Amazon. It's just nowhere near common in my large, very populated country.

> Replace "planet" with "United States".

Not even. Replace United States with... some very small subset of the United States.

I guess the bubble is very real.

The Valley Effect is real.

It's not pervasive in Europe at all, aside from some countries where Amazon has a presence (germany, uk, etc.).

Largely due to extremely limited functionality if you're not using Amazon's services, and limited options for language.

I'm not sure about the latest generation, but the previous ones wouldn't even support a 24 hour clock format.

That sentence struck me as odd too. Perhaps it's because most of my friends and I are all still broke-ish students, but I also only know one person who has an Alexa in their home.

Nah, in Switzerland I know 0 people who would use such crap. And why would you? Amazon doesn't give a nanofraction of a f__k about privacy, they would sell both of your kidneys for Prime delivery if they could. Why would I help some amoral companies like Google, Amazon or Apple (disputable) to know me better than I know myself? They would have to pay me ridiculous amounts to comply.

I can do search on my desktop 1000% more precisely, thank you.

The point is you don't have to use the desktop. E.g you lie in bed in the dark, not sleeping yet and a task comes to mind. You just say "Alexa, set a reminder for...", instead of turning on the light, reaching for your phone or a scrap of paper to note it down, etc.

People use it for the convenience.

Though, I'd also be vary of having an always listening gadget in my room.

That's not convenience in my view but borderline laziness, something I can happily live without. Your example sucks, because yelling at some assistant in the bed would wake my wife, that would be rather idiotic behavior from my side. That's the thing - there is no strong use case for people with similar mindset to mine, these 'assistants' seem like rather useless gadgets for those who want to desperately feel the 'future is here' moments.

It would be a convenience if it would be 100% certified to comply with decent privacy rules, it could almost perfectly understand variety of European languages and... I would be much more lazy person. Not going to happen anytime soon.

Looks like I can live happily without such a gimmick.

None of my friends here have Alexa. I've heard of its quirks as some of my US colleagues do but based on their stories I've consistently failed to gather why would I ever want one myself.

Not even! Most of my friends do NOT have an Alexa

I have Alexa via the Fire TV stick. I like it because you have to physically push a button to activate the microphone. It's nice to search for a movie without having to deal with the onscreen keyboard, but that's about it.

The article is very vague about what exactly Amazon is going to do. It doesn't sound like it would be anything more than Google Assistant is already doing by reading your email and automatically adding flights and hotel reservations to your calendar. I've even had Google automatically suggest a gas station on the way to return a rental car based on the reservation info, which was a little creepy, but I have to admit, convenient.

I take extraordinary measures to thwart, disable, or otherwise interfere with "voice assistants" within my home. One of the trends that's very upsetting for me is the injection of connectivity with voice assistants and IOT into EVERYTHING. It's impossible to buy a decently rated / high-end washer and dryer that doesn't want to connect to WiFi to sync to Google/Amazon for Alexa and Works with Google Assistant, and until you connect it somewhere they leave open a Bluetooth endpoint. This is commonplace with many household items.

Good news is, at least for now, it's easy to thwart Internet connectivity. Simply create a new SSID, connect them to it, and then delete the SSID. Make sure you set up WPA2 as part of it, so that if someone in the future creates the same SSID as a rogue/spoof, that it'll fail to connect. Once most devices connect to WiFi they internally disable Bluetooth automatically as it's used for IOT setup.

I look at what Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Apple, and others are doing with voice assistants and IOT and I just stare in abject horror. We're setting ourselves up for a dystopian cyberpunk nightmare of a future and everybody just seems to be okay with it. These roadmaps don't give me much hope for the future.

Thank you for this "workaround", I'm definitely going to look at doing this when, inevitably, all devices I replace when they fail will come with IoT nonsense.

Also, I'd argue that the "Alexa is so dumb, it doesn't understand half of what I tell it" crowd here are missing the point, and the point is what you said

I'll be more concerned about this when my Alexas can turn my lights off an on consistently, without issue, day over day for a period of weeks.

I really like the sound quality of Amazon’s newest Echo Dot generation compared to it size and price.

However, in my experience Alexa is still pretty stupid. The only things it does well, is to play music, switch lights and read Wikipedia articles.

The one thing I'm scared of is Alexa sending everything it hears to Amazon, and not only things I said after the trigger word. I know for a fact, Alexa constantly records even today, because it can filter "trigger word in the middle of a sentence" scenarios, when no actual request is intended. I really do hope, that only actual requests (or false-positives) are currently sent to the AWS cloud.

If that won’t be the case anymore in the future, I’ll be out.

I spent some time taking apart how Alexa must work myself. My thinking on this is guided by the fact that there are only a handful of Wake Words available. Given that there are only 4, I'm thinking the ability to recognize those Wake Words is in firmware on the device (such tech was commercially available back in 1995 when I played with a demo piece of hardware that did just that). Decoding a wake word from a stream of audio locally on the device without making a persistent recording of it or sending a recording off-device is fine with me.

However the more complex parsing of what ever comes after the Wake Word needs to be sent off as an audio stream to some cloud operation for parsing where more horsepower is available. This also seems quite reasonable to me. Sure, it could be done on the device but this would mean a hotter CPU on the device and a generally more expensive Alexa. Certainly no more $29 Echo Dots.

Is Alexa listening all the time? Hell yes it is! Is Alexa recording everything you say, everything you watch on TV, every time the dog barks and sending it back to Amazon for archival? Its possible but consider the economics of storing that much data as audio. Storage is cheap but thats quite a burden. Is AMZN keeping a parsed version of everything it hears from your device and dumping the raw audio version? Its technically possible but again, consider the economics of such a thing.

Not to mention, how many Alexas are going to be sold after someone here posts smoking gun proof Alexa is constantly or even at some batched interval sending off large chunks of data which are in fact full voice recordings?

I'm not going to waste my time on this experiment but anybody who is good with Wireshark could perform an analysis to quickly disprove this whole notion.

You have to be careful not to conflate two things. It is immediately obvious that Alexa "is always listening" -- after all, how could it know you are about to utter the wake word? So, in a sense, the device is listening to you at all times.

That, however, is separate from a concern that the device is streaming your data back at all times. The implementation could easily locally listen for the wake word, record your utterance, and only stream/process that part of it. It can, in a sense, listen at all times but only tell Amazon what you actually want it to tell Amazon. Which, AFAIK, is how the device works. That doesn't, of course, mean that it works flawlessly or that things are captured which you don't intend it to capture, which is a fact that has also been covered extensively by the media reporting on Alexa.

Disclaimer: AWS employee, not remotely related to any Alexa work

From the public record you can actually be pretty certain that Alexa doesn't send anything back to Amazon other than actual requests (and false positives). There was a murder trial a few years ago where an Alexa may have grabbed some audio of the murder. A judge ordered Amazon to turn over anything they may have, and Amazon said they didn't receive any requests during that time period, and they don't get any recordings other than those requests. So Amazon has effectively stated, under threat of criminal prosecution, that they don't record anything other than those requests.

" If you’re one of the eight or nine people on the planet who has never interacted with Alexa."

Really? Alexa is not available everywhere and it supports a limited number of languages, so if their language is not supported then people may not buy it, because not everyone wants to converse with Alexa via a foreign language. (Also, pronunication issues can cause speech recognition problems if one speaks, e.g. English or Spanish with a heavy accent.)

I wouldn't have a voice assistant in the house myself but even so I've still interacted with one. Mostly in the form of "Hey Alexa play Rick Astley as loud as you can" at the end of video calls with one of my colleagues...

(before hanging up obviously. I mean I don't want to have to hear that. :P )

I think the CCPA is going to scare the shit out of people when they realize it isn’t just a subpoena for a murder investigation that will get your Alexa history dumped, but some random dude who has a photocopy of your drivers license can now get a massive dump of every single thing Amazon recorded through your Alexa. That’s scary.

I think the author hasn't looked deeply at what Facebook and Twitter are doing.

Facebook, sure, but what's Twitter up to? Muddling along until they get cheap enough that Microsoft decides to buy them?

we live in a sensation world, articles like that are meant to have bold claims in the title, really nothing to see here.

As an early user of Alexa, unfortunately the technology is underwhelming. she does not understand names, she do not seem to improve while Google and Siri do actually, So yes Alexa Auto, or Alexa Show are good interesting devices, the reality is less rosy.

If only there was a way to avoid having an Amazon smart speaker in my home...

I've refused to buy one, but my daughter has one that she uses as a voice-activated radio and alarm clock. I think most people want the voice activated features and are unaware of the data collection capabilities of the device. There must be some balance between them. This might be a role for government.

Oof that header image. Good indicator that the article doesn't have much going on - other than the author cooking up yet another dystopian future where robots steal our medicine, or whatever.

"Simply put: Amazon, Microsoft, and Google are all trillion dollar companies because data is the most valuable resource in the world, and Alexa is among the world’s greatest data collectors."

... the value of which is a massive bubble due to the (mistaken) notion that if we just pile up enough garbage we can somehow wring gold from it. The gold, of course, being the ability to manipulate people into buying a different type of garbage.

The difference is that Amazon's core business is not built around extracting private data and packaging it into an ad targeting platform.

What do you think Amazon do? Their entire store is an ad targeting platform.

I almost wish this were true, Amazon's recommendation algorithm is terrible.

I'm always reminded that Amazon started with books, when I buy a vacuum cleaner and the site concludes I must want to buy a whole bunch more vacuum cleaners.

I've never had a voice assistant ask "Was that answer correct?" or say "Ohh that's what you meant" [Edit: I've only used Siri]

The idea of voice assistant predicting what the user wants seems impossible without that feedback.

If companies can convince the user that their assistant knows what they want, then it can actually just push out what it wants and users will comply.

For what it's worth, Alexa does ask for feedback about the accuracy and helpfulness of it's answers now.

Biggest issue I found with Alexa is... Amazon doesn't know enough about me. Specially here in South Africa, where most stuff is still Google Dominated.

Alexa, doesn't know: -Where I live

-My Music Preferences

-That I have YouTube Premier

-That I listen to afrikaans artist

-My Search history, and what I expect whey I ask/search for general stuff.

-Can't talk to my ChromeCast(sic ?)

-Didn't know where i drove to yesterday.

Basically I need to get a Google-Home

None of that is scary. Moreso invasive and annoying. Perfecting Alexa in any meaningful way will take decades unless business interest shift away from it completely.

This is jus another hack some suit is probably pitching Bezos on but has no real roadmap for actually achieving it.

Propping the product up with more crap.

Do most people in the US use some smart speaker at home and give commands via voice?

I'm not in the US, so I'm curious how pervasive it is. Is it the minority who doesn't use Alexa and co.?

No, far, far from most. Most people in certain tech-heavy cities, maybe.

Now, if you count voice assistants on phones, tablets, and laptops/desktops, most probably have access to at least one of those and maybe even most have tried it at least once. I doubt most (as in, over 50%) use them on a regular basis, though. Probably way under half.

I suppose that it depends upon what social group you're in. I'd say for people under 50 who life in modestly affluent parts of cities - yes, smart speakers are increasingly popular. Not sure if I'd use the word "most people", but it's a lot.

In my own small sample size of my family and wife's family, that is 8 households, only one has an amazon echo type of device.

Recently I visited the house of the one who does have it for four days. They used it to (a) set timers and (b) ask it odd questions for humor's sake to show it off to me. After an alarm sounded, 25% of the time they would have to request it to stop multiple times. I was unimpressed.

My immediate social circles do. It is definitely more common than I thought it would be ( I hoped the trend would go away the way 3d tv did ).

"If you’re one of the eight or nine people on the planet who has never interacted with Alexa, you’re both missing out and not really missing out."

First world arrogance. First world problem.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_World First World is a term used for countries that are aligned with NATO. It has no basis in what you think it means.

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