Dave Isbitski of Amazon: We Believe Voice Will Fundamentally Change How We Interact with Technology

According to a recent NPR/Edison Research study of smart speaker owners, 42 percent of people surveyed say it has become essential to their everyday lives, 47 percent say they use it more now than they did when they first got it, and 65 percent say they wouldn’t go back to life without them. And of all the folks who took this survey, 76  percent own the Amazon Echo.

The Future of Voice-First

Although I didn’t take the survey, you can count me in all these numbers, as ever since I bought my first Amazon Echo almost three years ago I’ve been fascinated by how it can do so many things by only asking Alexa. So I was more than excited to speak with Dave Isbitski, Amazon’s Chief Evangelist for Alexa and Echo, to hear more about how the device came about, how the Echo/Alexa combo is impacting customer behaviors and expectations, and where he’s seeing voice-first technologies taking us in the future.

Below is an edited transcript of our conversation. To hear the full interview click on the embedded player below.

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Dave Isbitski of Amazon: We Believe Voice-First Will Fundamentally Change How We Interact with TechnologySmall Business Trends: Maybe you can tell us a little bit about how the Echo came about, because it came out of the blue for most people.

Dave Isbitski: The idea behind it was always a Star Trek computer. And the ability to use your voice, to actually have a conversation. I think that for me, and for a lot of people, when you realize you’re having a conversation — and it’s not a technology that’s translating your voice into some kind of text and then processing it — that’s what the difference is. You can speak naturally, spontaneously.

I talk to customers and they say they don’t even remember how they do things. You just walk up and you kind of do it, and that’s how we have conversations with people. I don’t remember how I asked my kids last night to get to bed and make sure they were ready the next day, I just did, and so that was the important change.

It’s funny you remember 2014, I was also a Prime member. I did kind of see them, but I didn’t actually have my own until February (2015), because we were shipping them out to customers first as fast as we can. So, I would see it when I was in the Seattle office, but I didn’t have one in my home, and for me having one in my home is like… my family is the guinea pig.

My kids when they use this, and my wife when she uses it, what is it like for somebody who’s not wired in their brain the way I am? Where I think, “All technology’s great,” and I love it, and I want to just use all the new stuff, right? So that really was the beginning for me of … I didn’t have to teach anybody anything.

And looking back, I think it’s because we’ve reached this tipping point. The computer science behind it, using deep neural networks, and the understanding, the phonetics of how one word … When you put words together in sentences, what is the actual chance that another word is going to follow it? That’s really how machines have changed. If I’m going to say something, and I can use the adjectives and other stuff. There’s a high probability that it’s going to be, based on the context of the conversation we’re already having, what those words will actually be.

In the past, every single word was just a word being translated, right? It’s the way we function. We’re having this conversation, if all of a sudden I started talking about nonsense gibberish, just throwing together a bunch of words, you’d be like, “Whoa, what did Dave put in his coffee?” It wouldn’t makes sense. So that’s the sea change. You go back to 2014, 2015. IoT (Internet of Things) was the stuff. And for me, when I actually had an Echo, it was like, “Oh, this is the Internet of Things…”. It’s not a computer. It’s a device that’s connected to the Internet and that’s doing things, and then Smart Home made sense to me, suddenly. I could ask for lights, I started out with light bulbs and moved on to thermostats, and everything else.

I think that’s the fundamental shift. It was that people started to get it, and you saw this in that there was a general public awareness when it shifted from people just calling it, “Echo,” which is a product, to Alexa. It’s actually something or someone that I have this conversation with.

It was really neat to watch that change over time. There’s something powerful In conversation. In order for us to have a really good conversation, you have to get me. You understand what I’m saying, and I get you, and so it’s personal. It’s relational, and you don’t get that with any other kind of technology. You do get that with conversation.

Small Business Trends: How has the relationship between Amazon and its customers changed as more and more customers start using Echos and calling on Alexa to do things?

Dave Isbitski: I don’t know if it’s how you would define change. We always work from the customer first, and backwards, in everything we do. You’ll see that as a leadership principle, you’ll see that part of the culture. I think that what’s really changed is that there’s not a lot new that a customer couldn’t do already through the website or a mobile app, what’s changed is how they do it.

I had no idea that the stuff that was coming to my house from Amazon was because my wife had just asked Alexa to re-order it, until I saw it happen one day.

I heard her say, “Alexa, re-order cat litter,” and I was like, “Wait, what are you doing, how long have you … ” And she was like, “I’ve been doing that forever.” And then of course I start grilling her, I’m like, “How did you find out about this?” She was like, “I don’t know, I just asked her.” So I’m like, “Oh, okay,” that’s a customer expectation now that wasn’t there before. Suddenly, if Alexa knows me, and I’m doing things with Alexa, I’m just going to ask and see if she can do it.

So that relationship has changed. In the beginning, you had to know about these Alexa skills … Companies and brands, or hobbyists, or anybody can create a skill; and you basically teach Alexa about something, and how to have a conversation about it. So that could be ordering a Domino’s pizza, or ordering a ride from Uber, Lyft, or asking your bank balance from Capital One. Or it could be a game that you want to play.

And today, you can just be like, “Alexa, I want to play Jeopardy,” and then she figures out how to enable that for you on your behalf. Or you could say, “Alexa, how do I cook chocolate chip cookies?” And then she figures out what are all the different recipe skills out there that can do it?

I’d say that’s been a shift that we’ve seen with customers too. It’s almost like how, as human beings, we have those trusted advisors. And now there’s an expectation that you can have a conversation with Alexa. So that is crazy to think, even in just 3 or 4 years, how that’s been able to change that way, right?

Small Business Trends: Yeah … So what’s been the most surprising development you’ve seen with the Echo and customers? How they’re using it or how they’re not using it? What’s been something that really surprised you about this whole process?

Dave Isbitski: There’s a couple different ways I could think about that. As a technologist, I can definitely dream big. So in the beginning I remember, when we were trying to decide when we were going to release these SDKs (software development kits), so the Alexa skills kit for building skills in the Alexa for basically allowing you to put Alexa into anything, whether that’s hardware or software. I remember, we wanted to do it sooner than later, because we wanted to be surprised. We knew people were going to tinker and they were going to create things.

You also have some biases, looking back I definitely had biases. I did not think this thing could play games that were entertaining.

That was just a “Dave bias”, I wanted to be impressed. And then I saw stuff like EVE Online … I’m a big gamer. It’s an MMO (massively multiplayer online game), but it’s got its own economy and you’re flying your spaceship, it’s just this vast universe. And then somebody integrated Alexa, so they have an Echo and they’re literally flying their ship, they’re doing everything like [Captain] Picard. When I thought of gaming, I didn’t even think of that, but yet now they’ve literally … I mean you want to talk about immersion, you’ve literally changed the way that you interact with it, because now you’re having a conversation with a game that was never created to even be able to just have a conversation.

So that was awesome. Then the different form factors in the hardware came, and we launched the Echo Dot. One of the first things they saw, was somebody took their Dot, put in the coffee cup holder in the middle of their car, and used their mobile internet, and they’re just riding around with Alexa. This is Alexa on a modem, right, and I was like, “Wow.”

And so now I carry a Dot with me, but I can see that same scenario for a car. Once there’s a light bulb that goes off in your head where you don’t have to think about it, it’s ambient computing. You just ask questions to the air and you expect an answer. It’s interesting, because I do a lot of presentations too, and I’ll share this with you. There’s always this thread in my mind, after three years now of this, that when I’m onstage and I say, “Alexa,” that I’m going to hear her. It’s really weird.

Developers continue to surprise me across all those kinds of categories, and the hardware side of things and the software side of things, so there’s … Alexa is on Mac through people who have implemented that in the software, she’s on iPhones and Androids, and then she’s in speakers and refrigerators. So talking about expecting her to answer to no matter where you are, I kind of thought about some of the areas she would be, but literally it’s surprised me too, all the places that you can have a conversation now.

Small Business Trends: Were you getting the sense that customers were wanting this kind of device, or did you get the sense that, just based on what you guys were doing internally, this is a device they’ll want eventually?

Dave Isbitski: So it wasn’t so much about a device. The Echo uses Alexa, and the Echo was a way that we built the hardware, but for us it really was about voice. We have an Alexa Fund, which is a 100 million dollar fund to fuel innovation within voice. We believe that voice will fundamentally change the way that we interact with technology. If you start with the customer and you work backwards, the best thing you can do for a customer, and this is true on the website and in our mobile apps, is to make it as easy and as direct as possible. Look at 1-Click shopping.

Small Business Trends: A year, two years, three years, even five years from now, where are we going to be with the voice, and almost like voice first devices and leveraging the voice for all sorts of interactions? Where do you see us being in that time frame?

Dave Isbitski: In the role I’m in, I always try to put the lenses on somebody who’s never even used this. Because I think that’s the best way you do predictions into the future like that. Because ultimately, as a technologist, we all want to create stuff, and sometimes we create it just because we can. But I think where you really see technology get embraced and move forward, and real change, is when it becomes something important to people, that they use in their lives, and it has a fundamental difference.

And so when I think of voice like that, I think about, what are the areas today that a normal human being could ask for things? So automotive is super exciting in that space. When I was at CES and I was just looking around at … Ford had the whole setup, where you could actually talk with Alexa, and then seeing all the self-driving cars and all of that. That, to me, if we’re looking at day to day changes, to see that, the ability to have a conversation with your car for anything you need. I’m going to be one of those people… I think I’ll be a little more cautious because I love driving, I’ve done it my whole life.

But my kids, I don’t think, will think anything of it. They’re not even driving yet, and so why wouldn’t it … “Dad’s already driving me, the machine’s going to be better than he is.” So there’s a different outlook on that, so I think we’ll start to see that.

The difference is really the leveling. The great leveler of technology. Every technology I’ve ever used, I got more out of I than I think a lot of people did, because I’m technical, so I could figure things out. I could be forgiving. I kind of thought how the developers thought, so even if something wasn’t obvious, I’m like, “I bet you you can do it like this.”

And yet you had to train people. Touch made stuff easier, but there was still that barrier. Now that you can have a conversation, you don’t have to be taught. You can just ask for the AI to do something and it happens. So it’s very different. You look financial industry. I’ll give you an example. Debits and credits, balance sheets and interest rates, why do I need to know about that as a human being? I did a talk with Capital One at re:Invent last year, and they said that one of their top requests from customers was a sentence, “How am I doing?”

Small Business Trends: Wow.

Dave Isbitski: Now that’s something you would do with a mobile app, that’s such a human thing, but that’s a conversation you can actually have today, and how am I doing for me means, “Am I paying the mortgage on time? What went through on some credit cards?” Things like that. But it means something different for everybody. But the interface, that’s so human to have. So I think we’ll see more of that, rather than forcing people to adopt the vernacular of specific industries and to learn the technology to interact with that, we can have conversations.

And you’re starting to see this with chatbots, right? That’s why chatbots are so easy to use, because you can have a real conversation. But then just being able to talk is even better and more powerful, I think.

Small Business Trends: Do you consider your children to be a part of the voice first generation?

Dave Isbitski: Yeah, my oldest, I have a teenager now, so she’s COPPA-compliant. For technology, she gets to use a lot more stuff. She can have her own accounts, and all of that. But because of their dad, obviously, they’ve been around it their whole lives. But it’s interesting to see them now with their peers, and just the use of technology. Everything through social media and phones. The social norms, that’s some of the things you’re going to see change, right? Think of the past 10 years of face-down, looking into screens and things like that. If you showed that to somebody 50 years ago, they would think it’s madness, “Why is everyone like this?”

The social norms, even in our family, when we first got an Echo we had to create a social norm that, if somebody’s playing music, you don’t walk into the room and, “Cancel.” Because my kids would do that on each other, or if I’m doing something, you just don’t walk in and then ask for whatever.

There’s a politeness that you have to understand technology. And we have the same rules in my house too, around screens. How much time you get, no screens at the table, and so I think that’s what’s got me interested too, is to see how those social norms change over time.

Push notifications are live now in Echo devices. You see a green light and you know a package is coming. But we’re going to open that up for developers too. And so I think, the reason, at least for me, why I would check my screen so much, is that everything has the potential to be a priority one alert. Because you don’t know.

An email comes in, a text message comes in, you don’t know. So having an AI that knows what I care about, and knows when to bother me, suddenly there’s this peace that … You or I could be out at dinner, I don’t need to look down at my phone, because an AI is going to tell me if my wife needs me, or if there’s something going on at work, or if my commute’s going to suck when I leave the restaurant.

So I think that social norm may change. I’d love to be a grandpa years from now, sitting around with my kids in a restaurant, and everybody is back to being people.

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.

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Brent Leary Brent Leary is the host of the Small Business Trends One-on-One interview series and co-founder of CRM Essentials LLC, an Atlanta-based CRM advisory firm covering tools and strategies for improving business relationships. Brent is a CRM industry analyst, advisor, author, speaker and award-winning blogger.