Amazon Wants You To Help Make Alexa Smarter

Amazon aims to broaden the scope of available answers from its Alexa AI digital assistant using feedback from customers through a new program called Alexa Answers. Launched this week, Alexa Answers will pool knowledge from users to questions that Alexa can't currently answer by invitation only. The pre-requisites for participating haven't been provided but those who have been selected will receive an email inviting them to the program. Once signed in, questions that Amazon has chosen to be provided by users will be shown in various categories and tasked with selecting a topic or question that "appeals to them." Amazon will determine appropriate answers to provide and, if given to end users asking a given question, couch the response with an attribution to "an Amazon customer" before playing it back to users.

Background: The current standings in AI assistants generally place Alexa or Google Assistant at the top of the pecking order. For the most part, which of those comes out on top depends on the functionality a user is looking for. Summarily, if a user is looking for pertinent information and the types of search results or media playback Google is more well-known for, Assistant is the better option. For the deep home integration, shopping, and similar features, Alexa excels. The latter of those two services has held a commanding lead since Amazon first introduced its AI but the gaps between features and functionality have been narrowing over the past several months. Further competition from Samsung's Bixby, stands to complicate matters for Amazon since it boasts similar and growing smart home integration features. That will also be launched in all Samsung products beginning in 2020, giving Amazon good reason to begin bolstering its Alexa services on all fronts.

An internal beta of the new program was performed leading up to the public announcement and the online retailer says that more than 100,000 questions have already been answered through that trial. Those answers, in turn, have been provided via Alexa millions of times. The idea behind the program is said to have been inspired by the company's history of publishing product reviews on its site for prospective buyers to view prior to buying an item. In practice, it actually seems much closer to the system by which Amazon shoppers can ask questions about a product before making a purchasing decision. Every product on the Amazon website features a 'Q&A' section for customers to ask uncommon or specific questions about any particular item. A seller can respond to those if they choose but customers who have previously bought the product also often receive emails -- apparently at random -- asking whether or not they can answer the question given. Those answers appear later on the website to help inform a prospective buyer's decision.

Impact: Amazon hasn't given away too many details regarding how or if it verifies responses before providing them to users asking Alexa a question. That leaves open questions about whether the veracity of information given out by its AI can maintain a level of accuracy for less common queries or questions that could result in biased results -- intentional or otherwise. Within the Q&A section described above, not every answer is helpful and some, while comical to varying degrees, are precisely the opposite of useful. Additionally, some answers there become exceptionally long-winded or are too short to contain a complete answer to a given question. Amazon will have hopefully addressed those concerns or will need to in earnest if it hopes to maintain Alexa's current level of helpfulness.

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