In 2016 I did my first presentation on Amazon Alexa and Echo, and at the time there were about 700 skills available. Today there are over 100,000. And hundreds of millions of Alexa-enabled devices. So, since most of us are spending more time than ever in our houses, I wanted to catch up again with Dave Isbitski, Amazon’s Chief Evangelist for Alexa and Echo.
In a pretty extensive chat we had on LinkedIn Live recently, Dave shares some of the stories of how people are using Alexa/Echo and smart assistants in general during the Covid-19 pandemic, why he thinks voice technology is uniting generations, and how he sees voice playing a major role in the PC (Post Covid) era.
Below is an edited transcript of a portion of our conversation. To hear the full convo click on the embedded SoundCloud player.
Small Business Trends: How far have things come with Alexa and Echo devices?
Dave Isbitski: In 2014, if I would say, who has an Echo? I had to explain what that even was. Now in 2020, most people know what Echo is. I mean, there’s even the Saturday Night Live skit. They get what Alexa is. They probably have multiple devices. They’re just smart assistants and AI across the board. That’s really changed as part of the vernacular. It’s part of people’s daily routines.
What people may or may not know is that you have the ability to teach these AIs. So it’s just not Alexa, it’s any of these smart assistants. What we do at Amazon is we make that free, open and available for everyone. So whether they want to have Alexa in things, so that could be automobiles, it could be car stereos, it could be your phone. Windows has Alexa built in now, or you want to teach Alexa how to have conversations about things.
And when you have a conversation about something, we call that a skill. So you’re teaching Alexa a new skill and you can have a conversation about anything. And that could be stuff like ordering your Domino’s right now, right? When we’re sitting at home in a pandemic, they deliver. You could do an easy order or it could be just pulling up games. Just go to Amazon… If people are curious, because I do hear from people that are, “Hey, my kids are driving me crazy. Are there games?” There absolutely are games. Go to amazon.com/skills. You’ll see categories up there, Brent, that we didn’t have like a while ago. So you’ll see all these categories, just like any other Amazon product, you can sort, you can say, show me four stars and above ratings. Some of these have tens and tens of thousands of ratings now.
One of the things you can do right now as an Amazon customer is you can go to blueprints.amazon.com and you can create these things visually. So I hear from parents their kids are creating their own stories.
Small Business Trends: Yeah.
Dave Isbitski: Maybe you’re taking care of someone else who’s at home. You want to remind them to do things. You want to create the ability for them to ask questions. Like what medication do I take? What time do I take it? All of those you can do and then you can assign it to their Amazon account.
I’ve done that for my parents, where I’ve set up things. And so that’s something where we’ve tried to create the process as seamless as possible for you to start teaching Alexa to be able to have conversations, to create content you want, whether you have the ability to write code or not.
Small Business Trends: Are you seeing a lot of behavioral changes and folks leveraging their speakers to do things that they just weren’t really doing before?
Dave Isbitski: Well, one of the things I hear and you’ll see this online, you may even see this come across in your Facebook feeds and Twitter is that it’s so important to connect during all this. We actually have… We try once a week to connect with my parents over video, just to see. And one of the things we consistently hear… If you go here. That’ll take you to a blog post around Alexa and devices, and what’s going on. You’ll hear us talk about some of this.
I don’t think this was available when we last talked, but a popular feature is the ability to drop in. And so you set up people in your life and then they just say, “Alexa, drop in on grandparents.” Or “Alexa drop in on mom.” Or “Alexa drop in on kids.” And it’s incredible how seamless that becomes. And especially during this pandemic is the ability to just communicate like that without needing a phone, without updating apps, right? This is an experience. It’s just there. And voice is seamless. It’s inclusive. Everybody can do it. Voice is the first technology my parents are as excited as my kids are, right? And my dad still doesn’t use a computer, but he can pull up things on-
Small Business Trends: Really?
Dave Isbitski: Yeah, I know it’s crazy, right? Both my brother and I are tech, my mom prints out emails for him. He never logs… Yeah. But I was talking about where we’ve donated these devices in the hospitals and people have the ability to just talk through at any time and connect, right? Because you’re not touching it either, which is an important thing. We’ve been giving them to hospitals where nurses have the ability to check in and talk through that, all completely hands-free.
I was just talking to the folks at Johns Hopkins. And I won’t mention his name. He’s a surgeon out in New York. And it was very heartwarming. He just said, “I just want to thank you. Two years ago, my mother, she had dementia and Alzheimer’s and we used Alexa all the time. She had the ability to call for help. She had the ability to call us at any time. And it’s the way that we were able to communicate with her.”
So a couple of things we added. One of the themes is feedback from customers about making Alexa more personal. For example, anybody at any time, you can just tell Alexa to remember things, which is the first thing I did was remember the Wi-Fi password, right? And so if we have guests over, they can be like, “What’s the wifi password?” Right. And she can tell you, or it could be things like for my parents to remember dates and birthdays and things like that.
We all have different personalities. If you go look at Myers-Briggs, if you look at NBTI and five core personality types, like I’m in INFJ. I don’t know if you’re familiar with those types. A lot of times I can’t get out of my own head, but I can juggle multiple ideas in my head. I can live in cognitive dissonance. Other people aren’t like that. And mobile and web is one size fits all. It’s like, here’s our design. And if you don’t like it tough, and then we train our brains, right? We build up these neural pathways and how to use an interface. And then if you change that interface, it’s staggering to people. If one of these social media sites changes the way their feed looks every day.
Small Business Trends: Right.
Dave Isbitski: What’s great about voice is it could be the way that you want to consume that. You can decide what type of person you want to hear. In fact, we have a service called Polly Brand and it creates voices. KFC, we worked with them and you can get the Colonel’s voice. This is my absolute favorite is right today, with the Alexa device, you can say, “Ask Sam.” So Samuel L. Jackson, and he’ll tell you weather and jokes. And all of that is using a technology called Neural TTS (text to speech), right?
There was a breakthrough using neural nets in order to reproduce sound. So now through Neural TTS, if you use a computer and you’ll look at it that it’s computer generated, but to the human ear, it sounds like a human being and you can change inflection. You can make it excited. We’ve done that with Alexa where, when you’re creating these experiences, I mean, you choose what the voice sounds like. You can make her sound excited. We added the thing for customers where we’re hearing like we’ve got little ones and I go play a lullaby or I shut the lights off at night, right? Because a lot of people that are using Alexa with smart home, they’ll be like, “Turn off the lights.” And she’s super loud and wakes the baby, right? Like never wake the baby.
So you can whisper to Alexa and then she’ll be like, “Oh, it sounds like you’re whispering. Would you like me to whisper back?” And you say, “Yes, it’s whisper mode.” And so you’ll be like, “Turn off the lights.” And she’ll be like, “Okay, I’ll turn off the lights.” Right? But it’s very human. Another area you can say is, “You know what, talk faster, talk slower, slow down.” And so she’ll say things slower, or she’ll say things faster.
We have the ability to detect tone, right? So it’s very different. If I say, “Alexa, shut up.” Versus, “Alexa, thank you. Stop.” And we have all sorts of things. Like we’ve always had the ability… I think we talked about this on your last show. Since day one, since we launched, you had the ability to delete everything you’ve ever said to Alexa. You had the ability to go in and see things. And if you didn’t want to deal with technology, you can just call up Amazon, have it done. But people wanted to hear and have the ability on the fly. So we’ve opened that up and you can say things like, “Alexa, delete what you just heard.” You could say, “Alexa, what did you just hear?” And then she’ll repeat it back. You could say, “Alexa, delete everything you’ve heard today.”
And it’s interesting. You can even say things like, “Alexa, why did you do that?” And she’ll be like, “Well, this is what I heard and this is why I did that.” And so it’s very empowering because it helps people understand, because even as human beings, I’ll say one thing, but it’s not necessarily what you heard or processed the same way, right? And so giving people that ability, they’re like, “Oh, she keeps hearing this word. Or maybe I’m saying this way.” It’s very empowering in an open set up.
Some of the other things is bilingual. So you can switch between English and Spanish in the US on the fly and behind the scenes, we’re taking that, putting it into a lexicon. And so that both language models are working and you can switch between same thing with… In Canada, French Canadian, Hindi and English in India. Because that’s how we speak as human beings. If you’ve grown up in a bilingual family, just moving back and forth between words and languages and she’ll be able to do that.
And so it’s those types of things because nothing’s faster than just being able to ask for it. And so that’s where I would say, we’re evolving like in present day, that’s where we are and we can talk about future looking.
Small Business Trends: Are you seeing some of the interactions that typically would have taken place with your phone starting to take place with your voice devices?
Dave Isbitski: Well, I look at it this way. The mission of our group has always been Alexa anywhere that you want it to be. And so right now that’s in the house. But if you go for a drive, you should be able to say, “Alexa, read my book.” And it was the audio book maybe you were just listening to in your den, right? It’s just, it’s seamless. I’ve been quoted saying this before, and I think it’s still the best analogy, is that voice is the new HTML.
So think about when the web first came out and the internet first came out. How did you contact companies? Right? It was like, you wrote a letter, you walked into their lobby or a phone call. And suddenly through HTML, right? And I didn’t want to say voice is the new web, because web is so encompassing with social and everything too. Because it’s the interface. So HTML suddenly became the interface to connect with anybody, anywhere in the world, any brand in the world to learn, right? To ask questions about anything. It was really how HTML brought the web together. And that’s the way you should look at voice. It’s the HTML for everything.
This is part of the One-on-One Interview series with thought leaders. The transcript has been edited for publication. If it's an audio or video interview, click on the embedded player above, or subscribe via iTunes or via Stitcher.