Alexa’s bigger ‘brain’ is getting new skills, natural conversation, and memory

The digital assistant Alexa is just got smarter and potentially easier to use. Just a few days after a presentation at the International World Wide Web Conference in Lyon, France, in which Amazon revealed that its platform would soon be able to better remember information, the company unveiled a new feature for U.S. users called “Remember This,” which is available to use as of Tuesday, May 1. As the name suggests, the functionality allows you to ask Alexa to store key information that you may need again in the future, either by  telling the assistant to “remember” or “make a note.”

For example, you can now say, “Alexa, make a note that Amy is going to China in October,” or “Alexa, remember that I kept the extra blankets in the attic,” or “Alexa, remember Matthew’s teacher’s name is Ms. Sally.” Then, when you need a bit of help jogging your memory, you can just ask Alexa, “When is Amy going to China?” She’ll tell  you, “This is what you told me: Amy is going to China in October.”

Moving forward, we should also be able to enjoy more natural conversations without having to voice the “Alexa” prompt, and merge commerce recommendations into everyday exchanges.

These evolutionary changes were first detailed by Ruhi Sarikaya, the head of the Alexa Brain Group, in a developer blog post that gave more context to the announcement. The department’s primary mission is to make Alexa smarter and more engaging, while making it easier for users to access tens of thousands of Alexa Skills, and training the assistant to retain and utilize contextual information.

Memory is likely to be the most useful new feature for most users. In this regard, Alexa is still trailing behind Google Assistant, which has had a remember feature for some time, but Amazon is catching up fast.

In practical terms, it’s a pretty important step in the life of the digital assistant, while also removing the need for flighty users to shout at their smart speakers all the time. Alexa will now be able to understand and follow conversational questions as well as follow-up questions. The feature is called “Context Carryover,” and is expected to be available soon in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Germany. Examples cited by Sarikaya included the ability to inquire about a performer’s work, followed by a request to play that recording, as well as asking follow-up questions involving weather, traffic and other commute-related inquiries.

One slightly insidious feature introduced by Amazon is known to its developers as “Skills Arbitration.” In his example, Sarikaya asked Alexa how to remove an oil stain from a shirt. Alexa’s response: “Here is Tide Stain Remover” — a skill created and launched by the multinational consumer goods manufacturer Proctor and Gamble. It’s clearly another way for Amazon to insert the potential for commerce into the platform — brands are already working on creating skills to match popular consumer inquiries. It essentially means that Alexa is being viewed by Amazon as a primary function to influence how people shop, order, and consume all things. However, Sarikaya insists the feature is simply part of Amazon’s desire for the Alexa experience to be “friction-free.”

Updated on May 1: Remember This is now live for Alexa users in the U.S.

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