THERE'S NO DOUBT that Amazon is putting all its hardware, software and shopping-as-a-service might into its Alexa smart assistant right now. This month alone we've had new Echo products (including the infamous microwave), AI improvements and new Fire TV integrations.
But how does the woman behind Alexa envision her? Why did they give her a personality? And how come smart assistants are always female? We sat down with Toni Reid, Vice President of Alexa Experience & Echo Devices - in other words, the closest you can get to a human Alexa - at Amazon's Seattle HQ to discuss these issues and more. Here's how it went.
Hi Toni. Could you tell us about what you do at Amazon?
I'm responsible for Alexa experiences and our international teams.
Experiences encompasses things like the personality, where we go with Alexa - how we make it more conversational and more human-like - and then I also own a bunch of core experiences that help stitch [everything] together. My team runs discovery, engagement, routines - I have a bunch of different programs under me.
That's a lot of work for one person. How are you alive?
[Laughs] I've actually been on the team since before launch and so as crazy busy as it feels now, it's almost nothing compared to that explosive growth… I'm on a train that I've been on for a while. This is all I know.
You mentioned being in charge of Alexa's personality - but why does Alexa need a personality?
When we first launched, we wanted to have a set of tenets - tenets are really important to us for any products that we build. Think of them as ways to settle debates: "if these two things are equal, which one do you prioritise?"
You see tenets written for everything, I'm sure there were tenets for when we built this new building!
When we started out with what is now Alexa and Echo, there was some suspicion around the Star Trek computer and computing in the cloud - and out of that came these personality traits that are also values we have at Amazon.
So being smart, helpful, humble and sometimes funny - depending on who you ask! - those are the core operating traits that we have when we think about Alexa.
Being smart is one we're super focused on - one of the goals that we have is to become smarter about all the things that customers want us to do. Information, the ability to answer questions, more capabilities, more content partners, Alexa being everywhere.
Do you have a picture in your head of what Alexa looks like?
I don't. Not at all.
Is she human?
She's human-like. It's funny, we all have a slightly different answer to this. Some customers say "of course she's human, I love her, she's a member of my family," then you have another set of customers who say "it's a computer - it's incredibly powerful" - people's perceptions are different.
And you'll see me go between a service in the cloud with these capabilities, and then I'll say "Oh yeah, I love her, she's great."
There's an interesting dichotomy in terms of the fact that Alexa and smart assistants in general - Siri, Cortana, Google Assistant - are female (at least by default).
Some people see that as sexist because we're teaching society that women are there to fulfil your desires, to be obsequious. And on the other hand, if they were male by default, everybody would have said "Typical Silicon Valley, so sexist, a woman can't even get a job as an AI."
With that in mind, why is it that Alexa is female and there isn't an Alex?
Well, when we started, it was not pre-determined as a female or male character and voice. So the team tested a lot of different variations to see what customers responded to, and customers preferred the female voice. And we do this with new country launches and locales.
I separate the voice tone and the wake word [in Echo parlance, the 'wake word' is what you say to activate the device, so for most people that's "Alexa"].
We tested different wake words and now have four - Amazon, Echo, Computer and Alexa - and those things ended up creating a really strong AI embodiment. We'll continue to listen to customers in this regard and see what they want - but we know they love the voice we have.
I think they've resonated with the personality and the human-like companionship - if you read reviews, there's a lot of love for Alexa, she's part of the family. I think those things all kind of go together.
I have actually never heard the counter to that, your Silicon Valley [example] - that's really funny.
How do people react when you say you work at Amazon? Do you get negative feedback about working practices and suchlike?
I tend to mostly get questions about Alexa - when people hear what I've done and my role in the company, they quickly turn to give me feedback about how much they love Alexa and all the things they want us to do.
So you don't get negative comments?
I hear what everybody else will hear - I hear the positives, I hear the criticisms. People have a right to their opinions. I just hear more often that people are delighted with the products that we build and the convenience that we provide for customers with Prime, Alexa, and so on.
How do you work out how to deal with abusive queries -people getting angry with Alexa and telling her to "f*** off" and things like that?
We try to first understand the context of the situation: why people are responding in the ways that they are. If people are getting angry with Alexa or the service, we'd look to de-escalate the situation, apply some empathy to it.
I choose to take the path that there's a reason for the frustration, and so try to fix it or hand off.
Sometimes you just have to de-escalate, but sometimes an individual needs help, they're getting frustrated because they don't know how to do X, Y or Z.
What do you think Alexa will be in 10 years?
It's hard to predict a ten-year horizon. I mean just look at what's happened over the last four years!
What I'm excited about is the advancements in cloud computing and machine learning, the advancements around AI - I'm excited to watch these next five-plus years to see just how fast we can build, and what we can accomplish to be more conversational and human-like.
I think the experience will get so much better for customers when we can sit and have a conversation back and forth, when it moves from being functional and task-oriented to even more helpful.
What do you want Amazon to disrupt next?
Wow, that's a good interview question! "If you had the key for a day, what would you do?" I've never had it turned around.
It's maybe cheating, but I think there's still a lot of disruption to be made in the space that I'm in, working on artificial intelligence - this is very early days and there's a lot, not just disruption but making things much simpler for customers.
If you think of your typical week, all the areas where [you think] "oh if I could offload this work to another thing or person" - there's a big customer disruption. I'm excited about that and I'm excited about seeing what our developer community comes up with and builds off the API that we continue to roll out. µ
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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