Is Alexa Getting a Body?


Image Credit: MIT Technology Review

At Tuesday’s EmTech Digital, MIT Technology Review’s AI conference, the head scientist of the Alexa artificial-intelligence group at Amazon, Rohit Prasad,  made a comment that has been leading to theories that Amazon plans to give Alexa a body. Prasad’s comment began, he explained, by asking himself why Alexa was not smarter. He then came to the conclusion that,

The only way to make smart assistants really smart is to give it eyes and let it explore the world.

Prasad’s statement certainly alluded to giving Alexa a body in order to learn more, and his statement was based on the thesis that Alexa is not smarter because it does not have enough information to become smarter. MIT Technology Review wrote about Rohit Prasad’s statement in great detail, interested readers can find it here.

Users Have Little Patience for Dumb Virtual Helpers, and Alexa is Pretty Dumb (Compared to a Human)

Prasad explained that Alexa is easily confused by follow-up questions, misplaced “um”s, and is not able to hold an actual conversation because the ambiguity of language is too confusing. Humans rely on a preexisting understanding of the world to construct the meaning of what they say. Despite Alexa’s advantages over the human brain, like being able to access a vast encyclopedia of useful facts, Alexa does not really have intelligence. Consider the question “What’s the temperature?” Answering this requires Alexa to do some reasoning and understand some context: are you referencing the indoor temperature, a reading from an oven, the outside temperature, or even the temperature in a destination location. In an interview before the conference, Prasad said,

Language is complicated and ambiguous by definition. Reasoning and context have to come in.

Bret Kinsella also wrote a bit about this topic in the most recent issue of Voicebot Insider. He wrote, “Your exchange with a voice assistant may be unstructured and unscripted, but it is far from conversational…Voice assistants don’t care what you think. They are robots. The best you can hope for is they gather information from you and provide information and services that offer you some benefit. They are a tool.”

Researchers Believe Machines Will Not Master Language Unless They Experience the World

It is very clear that Prasad is not the only person to think that Alexa needs more context in order to get smarter. Boris Kratz, a Principal Research Scientist at the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, spoke to the MIT Technology Review earlier this month about his belief that current AI techniques aren’t enough to make Siri or Alexa truly smart. Companies also recognize the need for more exploration and have developed devices like smart displays that give voice assistants access to a camera.

Consumers are also focused on developing context, although maybe it hasn’t been this explicitly stated before. Consider Voicebot research from late 2018 that found consumers want understanding over personality from voice assistants. 53.1% of consumers said the “how well it understands me when I speak” was the most important quality of a voice assistant. With all of this in mind, it is very possible we may see a version of Alexa with a body in the future.

Let us know what you think about the future of AI and voice assistants on Twitter.

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