好文 | 当我们聚焦 AI 交互，不能忽略的重要玩家是谁？
Voice Is the Next Big Platform, and Alexa Will Own It
Amazon’s personal assistant is about to stretch beyond the Echo, and get downright chatty with everyone.
If you happen to live in one of the six million US homes that have so far purchased an Amazon Echo, you may think Alexa is just a voice emanating from a cylindrical speaker that knows a couple of tricks. It plays the Beatles on command. It can order more toilet paper. It has jokes, some of which are even kind of funny.
In fact, that’s only the start. Just as Apple taught us that a small portable phone could be a more powerful computing method than our lumbering desktops, Amazon is introducing us to a new computing interface — a voice devoid of a screen—that will eventually grow to be more ubiquitous and more useful than our smartphones. Forget the onerous process of pulling your Pixel or iPhone from your pocket, unlocking it, opening apps, and tapping your desires onto a screen. (Ugh!) Soon, you’ll speak your wants into the air — anywhere — and a woman’s warm voice with a mid-Atlantic accent will talk back to you, ready to fulfill your commands.
It all starts with that tiny speaker. The Alexa-enabled Echo is a true unicorn, one of those rare products that arrives every few years and fundamentally changes the way we live. In 2017, we will start to see that change. After years of false starts, voice interface will finally creep into the mainstream as more people purchase voice-enabled speakers and other gadgets, and as the tech that powers voice starts to improve. By the following year, Gartner predicts that 30 percent of our interactions with technology will happen through conversations with smart machines.
Every large tech company is trying to position itself as the new operating system for the voice-activated era. In November, Google introduced a competing system, Home. Microsoft is rumored to be building a HomeHub feature into Windows 10 updates. There are reports that Apple is working on a Siri-based product. And a Chinese startup called LingLong has just released its version for the Chinese market, the LingLong DingDong. (Its wake word—no joke—is “Ding Dong Ding Dong.”)
Yet Amazon has a two-year jump on its competition, having first introduced the Echo speaker in November 2014. Sure, only five percent of American households have an Alexa-powered device right now. But, says longtime Forrester tech analyst James McQuivey, “Qualitatively, Amazon’s position is more secure than the numbers would indicate.”
There are several reasons for this. First, Amazon was smart about how it introduced its first Alexa-powered device. When Apple introduced Siri in 2011, it promised you could talk to Siri like a human being, advertising it as “an intelligent system, to get things done just by asking.” But Siri didn’t turn out to be all that intelligent—at the time, it couldn’t do much. It made a bad first impression.
By contrast, Amazon introduced the Echo as a smart speaker that responded to a few simple commands. “People’s expectations were very moderate,” says McQuivey. The Echo was really good at doing what it promised. And its owners didn’t have to press a button; they could awaken Alexa by repeating a wake word (“Echo” and “Amazon” can work in addition to “Alexa”). Thanks to far-field microphones, which can pick up a normal speaking voice from just about anywhere in a room, Alexa could pick up and respond to voice commands reliably.
Second, Alexa’s users are hooked on it. About a third of them turn to the tech three times or more every single day. “People are latching on to the idea that once it is in their home, they should use it,” says McQuivey. “It turns out having microphones in your environment is a lot more convenient than pulling out your phone.”
Third, Amazon opened its platform early to third-party developers to program “skills” — the equivalent of “apps” — just months after it launched. They’ve made Alexa much more enticing to its users. A year and a half later, Alexa has more than 5,000 skills. You can pay your Capital One credit card bill. You can request a flash briefing from BBC news. You can ask Good Housekeeping how to remove a wine stain from the carpet. You can even make Alexa fake a fart.
In the coming year, the tech that powers Amazon’s assistant will become even more robust. “We’ve made huge progress in teaching Alexa to better understand you,” Amazon’s head scientist and vice president of Alexa Rohit Prasad told Backchannel earlier this month. Amazon is making more tools available to developers. In November, the company announced an improved version of its developer tools, the Amazon Skills Kit. The company also announced improvements to the Alexa Voice Kit, the set of tools that allow manufacturers to incorporate Alexa into third-party devices like cars or refrigerators.
Amazon will also push aggressively to move Alexa beyond the Echo. The speaker, after all, was never the point. There’s an apt comparison to Google’s entry into the phone business: Soon after the search giant launched Android, it introduced the Nexus. It never intended to be a dominant smartphone maker, but it used the Nexus to show off what Android could do, and encourage other smartphone makers to use the Android operating system. In an effort to spur the creation of new Alexa-powered devices, Amazon has partnered with Intel to build a design for an Alexa-enabled smart speaker and to bring Alexa voice controls to its smart home hub. Expect to see more electronics incorporate the voice interface in the near future.
But for Alexa to shift from a useful tool to the next dominant computing platform, it must overcome some significant tech, design, and social hurdles. For one, privacy. This is why Alexa isn’t yet in our house; my partner doesn’t like the idea that a speaker is always listening to us.
She is not wrong. In order to hear you when you say “Alexa,” the Echo and its ilk must always be listening. Amazon insists the conversations that you have before you’ve said the wake word are not stored or sent over a network to Amazon’s servers. In effect, it’s no different than the log any big internet company keeps of your online activity using the smartphone you always have on you, which registers everything from the places where you posted Instagram photos to the number of steps you logged on FitBit. But the fact that it is activated by voice, and that it’s in your home, leads some people to feel freaked out. I asked McQuivey about this, and he said he expects the concern to be short-term. “I bet every single one of those people, when they first heard about online shopping, wouldn’t have done that either.” (Indeed, my partner just agreed we could get an Echo in the new year.)
There’s also no good way to discover all the things that Alexa can do. If you know what a skill is called, you can simply tell Alexa to enable it. (“Alexa, enable 7-minute Workout.”) But what if you don’t know a skill’s name? Or what if you want to discover new ones? Though Alexa has a storefront on Amazon, it only surfaces a very few of the copious numbers of skills available. And the entire point of Alexa is that you don’t need to pull up a screen or push any buttons to use it. But there’s no voice-powered discovery tool for the platform. New tools will help guide developers to a larger common vocabulary for Alexa, which will make Alexa easier for everyone — developers and consumers — to use. If “Alexa, cancel” means the same thing every time you say it, for example, you’ll be able to navigate Alexa better. This will also make Alexa smarter.
Yet discovery is a problem that likely won’t be solved until Alexa is a heck of a lot smarter. Eventually, Amazon hopes artificial intelligence will predict skills that you might want and tell you about them, in lengthy conversational exchanges. To spur the type of computing development that will accomplish this, Amazon is sponsoring 12 university teams to compete for the inaugural $2.5 million Alexa prize. The grand challenge will be to build a social bot that can chat “coherently and engagingly” with humans for 20 minutes. Amazon also announced a partnership with Techstars to fund an Alexa Accelerator, a 13-week program to help newcomers build skills. The guy running it is Chris DeVore, an angel investor who manages Techstars Seattle. “Applications are due in January, and my inbox is totally full,” says DeVore.
But if Amazon’s lead is secure in 2017, it shouldn’t count its competitors out for the future. Each of the big tech companies brings unique advantages. Google, for example, can draw from the copious amounts of data it has collected about you to make its device useful immediately. As soon as a new user powers it up, the Google Assistant can suggest calendar reminders or read new Gmail messages. Alexa, take note.