Amazon Alexa, also known simply as Alexa, is a virtual assistant technology largely based on a Polish speech synthesiser named Ivona, bought by Amazon in 2013. It was first used in the Amazon Echo smart speaker and the Echo Dot, Echo Studio and Amazon Tap speakers developed by Amazon Lab126. It is capable of voice interaction, music playback, making to-do lists, setting alarms, streaming podcasts, playing audiobooks, and providing weather, traffic, sports, and other real-time information, such as news. Alexa can also control several smart devices using itself as a home automation system. Users are able to extend the Alexa capabilities by installing “skills” (additional functionality developed by third-party vendors, in other settings more commonly called apps) such as weather programs and audio features. It uses automatic speech recognition, natural language processing, and other forms of weak AI to perform these tasks.

Most devices with Alexa allow users to activate the device using a wake-word (such as Alexa or Amazon); other devices (such as the Amazon mobile app on iOS or Android and Amazon Dash Wand) require the user to click a button to activate Alexa’s listening mode, although, some phones also allow a user to say a command, such as “Alexa” or “Alexa wake”.

As of November 2018, Amazon had more than 10,000 employees working on Alexa and related products. In January 2019, Amazon’s devices team announced that they had sold over 100 million Alexa-enabled devices.

In September 2019, Amazon launched many new devices achieving many records while competing with the world’s smart home industry. The new Echo Studio became the first smart speaker with 360 sound and Dolby sound. Other new devices included an Echo dot with a clock behind the fabric, a new third-generation Amazon Echo, Echo Show 8, a plug-in Echo device, Echo Flex, Alexa built-in wireless earphones, Echo buds, Alexa built-in spectacles, Echo frames, an Alexa built-in Ring, and Echo Loop.

App

A companion app is available from the Apple Appstore, Google Play, and Amazon Appstore. The app can be used by owners of Alexa-enabled devices to install skills, control music, manage alarms, and view shopping lists.[ It also allows users to review the recognized text on the app screen and to send feedback to Amazon concerning whether the recognition was good or bad. A web interface is also available to set up compatible devices (e.g., Amazon Echo, Amazon Dot, Amazon Echo Show).

Functions

Alexa can perform a number of preset functions out-of-the-box such as set timers, share the current weather, create lists, access Wikipedia articles, and many more things. Users say a designated “wake word” (the default is simply “Alexa”) to alert an Alexa-enabled device of an ensuing function command. Alexa listens for the command and performs the appropriate function, or skill, to answer a question or command. When questions are asked, Alexa converts sound waves into text which allows it to gather information from various sources. Behind the scenes, the data gathered is then sometimes passed to a variety of sources including WolframAlpha, iMDB, AccuWeather, Yelp, Wikipedia, and others to generate suitable and accurate answers. Alexa-supported devices can stream music from the owner’s Amazon Music accounts and have built-in support for Pandora and Spotify accounts. Alexa can play music from streaming services such as Apple Music and Google Play Music from a phone or tablet.

In addition to performing pre-set functions, Alexa can also perform additional functions through third-party skills that users can enable. Some of the most popular Alexa skills in 2018 included “Question of the Day” and “National Geographic Geo Quiz” for trivia; “TuneIn Live” to listen to live sporting events and news stations; “Big Sky” for hyper local weather updates; “Sleep and Relaxation Sounds” for listening to calming sounds; “Sesame Street” for children’s entertainment; and “Fitbit” for Fitbit users who want to check in on their health stats.[34] In 2019, Apple, Google, Amazon, and Zigbee Alliance announced a partnership to make smart home products work together.

Technology advancements

As of April 2019, Amazon had over 90,000 functions (“skills”) available for users to download on their Alexa-enabled devices, a massive increase from only 1,000 functions in June 2016. Microsoft‘s AI Cortana became available to use on Alexa enabled devices as of August 2018. In 2018, Amazon rolled out a new “Brief Mode”, wherein Alexa would begin responding with a beep sound rather than saying, “Okay”, to confirm receipt of a command. On December 20, 2018, Amazon announced a new integration with the Wolfram Alpha answer engine, which provides enhanced accuracy for users asking questions of Alexa related to math, science, astronomy, engineering, geography, history, and more.

Home automation

In the home automation space, Alexa can interact with devices from several manufacturers including SNAS, Fibaro, Belkin, ecobee, Geeni, IFTTT,[41] Insteon, LIFX, LightwaveRF, Nest, Philips Hue, SmartThings, Wink, and Yonomi. The Home Automation feature was launched on April 8, 2015. Developers are able to create their own smart home skills using the Alexa Skills Kit.

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In September 2018, Amazon announced a microwave oven that can be paired and controlled with an Echo device. It is sold under Amazon’s AmazonBasics label.

Alexa can now pair with a Ring doorbell Pro and greet visitors and leave instructions about where to deliver packages.

Ordering

Take-out food can be ordered using Alexa; as of May 2017 food ordering using Alexa is supported by Domino’s Pizza, Grubhub, Pizza Hut, Seamless, and Wingstop. Also, users of Alexa in the UK can order meals via Just Eat.[49] In early 2017, Starbucks announced a private beta for placing pick-up orders using Alexa. In addition, users can order meals using Amazon Prime Now via Alexa in 20 major US cities. With the introduction of Amazon Key in November 2017, Alexa also works together with the smart lock and the Alexa Cloud Cam included in the service to allow Amazon couriers to unlock customers’ front doors and deliver packages inside.

According to an August 2018 article by The Information, only 2 percent of Alexa owners have used the device to make a purchase during the first seven months of 2018 and of those who made an initial purchase, 90 percent did not make a second purchase.

Music

Alexa supports many subscription-based and free streaming services on Amazon devices. These streaming services include: Prime Music, Amazon Music, Amazon Music Unlimited, Apple Music, TuneIn, iHeartRadio, Audible, Pandora, and Spotify Premium. However, some of these music services are not available on other Alexa-enabled products that are manufactured by companies external of its services. This unavailability also includes Amazon’s own Fire TV devices or tablets.

Alexa is able to stream media and music directly. To do this, Alexa’s device should be linked to the Amazon account, which enables access to one’s Amazon Music library, in addition to any audiobooks available in one’s Audible library. Amazon Prime members have an additional ability to access stations, playlists, and over two million songs free of charge. Amazon Music Unlimited subscribers also have access to a list of millions of songs.

Amazon Music for PC allows one to play personal music from Google Play, iTunes, and others on an Alexa device. This can be done by uploading one’s collection to My Music on Amazon from a computer. Up to 250 songs can be uploaded free of charge. Once this is done, Alexa can play this music and control playback through voice command options.

Sports

Amazon Alexa allows the user to hear updates on supported sports teams. A way to do this is by adding the sports team to the list created under Alexa’s Sports Update app section. 

The user is able to hear updates on 15 supported sports leagues:

  • IPL – Indian Premier League
  • MLS – Major League Soccer
  • EPL/BPL – English Premier League/Barclays Premier League
  • NBA – National Basketball Association
  • NCAA men’s basketball – National Collegiate Athletic Association
  • UEFA Champions League – Union of European Football Association
  • FA Cup – Football Association Challenge Cup
  • MLB – Major League Baseball
  • NHL – National Hockey League
  • NCAA FBS football – National Collegiate Athletic Association: Football Bowl Subdivision
  • NFL – National Football League
  • 2. Bundesliga, Germany
  • WNBA – Women’s National Basketball Association
  • 1. Bundesliga, Germany
  • WWE – World Wresling Entertainment

NOTE*** As of 27 Nov 2021, Echo Show 5 Devices do not show Upcoming Games

Messaging and calls

There are a number of ways messages can be sent from Alexa’s application. Alexa can deliver messages to a recipient’s Alexa application, as well as to all supported Echo devices associated with their Amazon account. Alexa can send typed messages only from Alexa’s app. If one sends a message from an associated Echo device, it transmits as a voice message. Alexa cannot send attachments such as videos and photos.

For households with more than one member, one’s Alexa contacts are pooled across all of the devices that are registered to its associated account. However, within Alexa’s app one is only able to start conversations with its Alexa contacts. When accessed and supported by an Alexa app or Echo device, Alexa messaging is available to anyone in one’s household. These messages can be heard by anyone with access to the household. This messaging feature does not yet contain a password protection or associated PIN. Anyone who has access to one’s cell phone number is able to use this feature to contact them through their supported Alexa app or Echo device. The feature to block alerts for messages and calls is available temporarily by utilizing the Do Not Disturb feature.

Business

Alexa for Business is a paid subscription service allowing companies to use Alexa to join conference calls, schedule meeting rooms, and custom skills designed by 3rd-party vendors. At launch, notable skills are available from SAP, Microsoft, and Salesforce.

Severe weather alerts

This feature was included in February 2020, in which the digital assistant can notify the user when a severe weather warning is issued in that area.

Traffic updates

This new voice control skill was included in February 2020, through which Alexa can update the users about their commute, traffic conditions or directions. It can also send the information to the user’s phone

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