What is Alexa, and what can Amazon’s virtual assistant do for you?

What exactly is Alexa? Where does she come from? And how does she work?

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Regardless of whether you own an Amazon device, you’ve probably heard the name “Alexa.” It’s the name you call out when you have a question — provided you own an Echo device or Alexa-enabled speaker. Amazon’s virtual assistant is a female voice that talks to you in a conversational manner, ready to help you with many things. She has been integrated into several of the company’s products and is starting to find its way into third-party devices, like GE lamps and the Sonos One speaker. Alexa can perform a variety of simple tasks, like playing music, but you can also use Alexa in your smart home to dim the lights, lock the doors, adjust the thermostat, and control other smart home devices.

While “Alexa” has become synonymous with products like the Echo, you can’t actually go out and buy an “Alexa.” Just like you can buy an iPhone with “Siri” on it, but you can’t go buy a “Siri.” You need to have a device that has the voice assistant built in. So what is Alexa exactly? Here’s everything you need to know about Amazon’s virtual assistant.

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Who/What is Alexa?

For most people, all you really have to know about Alexa is that it’s the name of the voice that comes out of Alexa-enabled speakers. Basically, Alexa is to Amazon what “Siri” is to Apple. Alexa is a voice that you can ask questions and get answers to, such as “what is the weather today in Chicago?” Alexa has been integrated into many of Amazon’s services and can be used with products such as the original Amazon Echo, Echo DotEcho Spot, or Amazon Fire TV.

But really, what exactly is Alexa? When you ask Alexa a question, what you’re doing is communicating with a cloud-based service. Amazon has designed the Alexa Voice Service (AVS) to mimic real conversations, but you’re actually using intuitive voice commands to get this service to perform specific tasks. “Alexa” is simply the “wake word” that alerts the service to start listening to your voice. For most devices, you just have to say it to get a response.

Here’s how Amazon describes the Alexa Voice Service on its developer page:

“The Alexa Voice Service (AVS) is Amazon’s intelligent voice recognition and natural language understanding service that allows you to voice-enable any connected device that has a microphone and speaker.”

While Alexa is the official name for Amazon’s voice assistant, you can change this wake word to “Amazon” or “Echo.” That’s a useful feature, especially if your name or your partner’s or roommate’s name happens to be Alexa.

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Why Alexa?

Apple has Siri. Google Home has the Google Assistant, which comes alive when you say “OK, Google.” Amazon has Alexa. But why? According to David Limp, the Amazon executive who oversaw the development of the service, the name “Alexa” was chosen for a few reasons. First, the name “Alexa” harks back to the Library of Alexandria, which attempted to collect all of the world’s knowledge. Amazon is attempting to do the same thing. Alexa is always learning but, in theory, it should be a seamless source of information.

More practically, the service was named Alexa because it contains the uncommon “X” sound. Since this service is voice-activated, Amazon wanted to choose a name that wouldn’t get confused with other words that could accidentally awaken the device:

“We did go through a number of names and the name is important as much for the personality that it creates around the persona than is this computer-based voice computer in the cloud. But there’s computer science behind it, too,” Limp said. “If any of you have Echoes, you know that it only wakes up when it hears the word “Alexa,” and the phonics of that word and how that word is parsed and the fact that it has a hard consonant with the ‘X’ in it, is important in making sure that it wakes up only when it’s asked for. And so, a combination of those two things allowed us to kind of narrow in on Alexa.”

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Where can I use Alexa?

In order to use Alexa, you’ll need a device that integrates the voice technology. This typically means an Amazon device, such as an Echo, Echo Dot, or Echo Show, but this cloud-based personal voice assistant has also been integrated with some third-party systems. Devices like the Fire TV are also compatible with Alexa, as are some third-party devices: the Ecobee Switch+ light switch, the LG InstaView refrigerator, and the aforementioned Sonos One speaker. Someone even programmed Alexa to work with a Big Mouth Billy Bass.

Alexa has also become the center of many smart-home systems, including Wink, SmartThings, and the Logitech Harmony. You can also use the voice-assistant to build your smart home piecemeal, as Alexa can also pair with hubless devices such as WeMo switches and Nest thermostats.

Here is a list of smart-home devices that are compatible with Alexa.

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What can Alexa do?

The list of commands that Alexa can understand seems to grow on a daily basis. Amazon calls these “skills,” and now you can even create your own skills through Amazon Blueprints. Upon review from Amazon, you can even publish your own skills in the Amazon Skills Store for other people to use on their Alexa devices. The number of tasks that Alexa can accomplish is clearly more than we can list in this article, but here are some of our favorites:

Alexa also now has the ability to set up “routines” with you, where a single command that you set — say, “Alexa, good night,” — shuts off the lights, locks your front door, sets an alarm for a time you set, and sets your coffee pot to turn on at a certain time. If you don’t want to wake your partner, Alexa has a whisper mode, where she’ll whisper to you and understand your whispers. You can learn how to set up routines in our how-to post.

Amazon is adding new capabilities to Alexa just about every day, with more skills and device compatibility. If you want to learn more about Alexa, all you have to do is ask: “Alexa, what’s new with you?” and she’s happy to share.

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