In the world of smart AI assistants, Amazon's Alexa seems to have become the defacto name on people's lips. Google Assistant has been making efforts recently, and there's always Siri around in the back somewhere, but Alexa still reigns.
Ruhi Sarikaya, director of applied science for Alexa Machine Learning, has announced three additions to Alexa's "cognitive" abilities that will make it even smarter: The first is called 'Skills Arbitration' and is all about making Alexa easier to use.
Essentially, Alexa can find and activate skills on its own based on what you want. So if you ask Alexa on Echo Show how to remove a stain from your shirt, it'll show you the Tide Stain Remover skill and activate it - the specific example given by Sarikara in a blog post announcing the changes. This saves you having to dig through the Alexa companion app, activating it, then asking Alexa through a prompt like, "Alexa, open Tide Stain Remover and ask how to clean my shirt."
Essential reading: Amazon Alexa essential guide
The second feature, named 'Context Carryover' will be familiar to those with Google Assistant. Alexa can already handle two-part requests featuring pronouns. So if you ask about Adele's latest song, then ask to play it, Alexa can handle it. Soon though, you'll be able to do this with other things. Say you ask what the weather is like in Seattle, you can then ask how it'll be this weekend without reminding Alexa that you're talking about Seattle. Alexa will also retain context if you change the type of command, so you could ask how the weather is in in San Francisco and then ask how long it'll take you to get to get there.
Finally, Amazon is giving Alexa a memory to remember customized things about you and your life for the future. So if you tell Alexa that Carlos' birthday is 24 September, Alexa will remember that. Sarikaya says this is one of "many" new features that'll help make Alexa feel more personalized this year.
Amazon says it will continue to work and make Alexa as frictionless and easy to use as possible, but notes that rolling out the features at scale across different countries and languages will be a difficult task. That's why only the 'Context Carryover' update is set to hit the US and UK, while the other two will remain exclusively Stateside initially.
One criticism of Alexa is that, while it can be very useful, the assistant can also feel a little rigid. You have to sometimes talk to it in a formula to get what you want. The more conversational and intelligent it is, the more it can adapt, the better it is. Alexa is already one of the most popular AI assistants out there. Now it's taking the next step.