Amazon’s Alexa head says company is ‘at the forefront of A.I.’ as chatbots explode

Senior VP Head Scientist of Amazon Alexa, Rohit Prasad in Lisbon.

Rita Franca | Nurphoto | Getty Images

Amazon‘s Alexa head said his company is right in the middle of the boom in generative artificial intelligence, the technology that’s spreading rapidly across Silicon Valley and has spurred an arms race between Microsoft and Google.

The tech world has been enamored with a new generation of chatbots since OpenAI’s ChatGPT went viral late last year. That’s pressured companies like Amazon to showcase their own capabilities in generative AI. Amazon’s biggest entry into the market thus far has been through an AI service for cloud customers.

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However, Rohit Prasad, Amazon’s senior vice president and head scientist for Alexa, said it’s wrong to think the e-retailer has missed out in generative AI, which allows people to convert text-based queries into creative and thorough answers.

“Alexa has been and is at the forefront of AI for a long time,” Prasad told CNBC in an interview. “We’ve been part of the cultural zeitgeist and it hasn’t slowed down.”

Prasad added that contrary to ChatGPT, which remains accessible through a web browser, Alexa is an “instantly available, personal AI” that people can communicate with by voice.

Amazon established an early lead in voice software after it debuted its Alexa digital assistant in 2014. More than 500 million Alexa-powered devices have been sold worldwide, the company said Wednesday. The last time Amazon gave an update on that number was in 2019, when it was at 100 million.

The Alexa assistant, now plugged into everything from smart speakers to thermostats, has long depended on machine learning technology to answer their queries by fetching relevant data.

But the rise of AI-powered chatbots, which can perform sophisticated functions like writing fiction and coding software, has highlighted the limitations of digital assistants such as Alexa. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ sci-fi vision for Alexa to resemble an all-knowing computer from “Star Trek” hasn’t exactly panned out.

Prasad said Amazon is working to make Alexa more conversational and intelligent. One way it hopes to do so is through a new version of its own large language model, called Alexa Teacher Model. Large language models power generative AI, and Alexa is already powered by Amazon’s LLM.

The goal is for Alexa to be able to answer complex requests, and understand more about users.

“This is where all the ambient context of who you are, what are you asking, where you are, comes in to make the best decision for you in that moment and on your behalf,” Prasad said.

In his latest letter to investors, Amazon CEO Andy Jassy said generative AI and LLMs are areas where the company is “investing heavily,” noting that the technologies stand to “transform and improve virtually every customer experience.”

The company has posted job listings suggesting it plans to implement a ChatGPT-style product in search on its online store, Bloomberg reported. Amazon may also add more generative AI-like features to Alexa focused on entertainment and storytelling, according to Insider.

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