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Alexa’s newest feature lets the A.I. get back to you with an answer

In yet another evolutionary step in the artificial intelligence contest between Amazon and Google, Amazon confirmed this week that a new feature called “Answer Update” will enable Alexa to percolate on a question she doesn’t know the answer to, and inform users once she’s learned the answer. Factual questions only, please; we don’t think it’s healthy to ask a robot if it loves you and then stew on it for a while. We’ve seen that movie already.

The feature, first spotted by Voicebot, was prompted after listening to a news item and asking follow-up questions. The intelligent assistant first asks if users want to enable “Answer Updates,” a feature that users can also opt out of on command.

Amazon says the new feature is a way to expand Alexa’s “Knowledge Graph,” an informational database containing general knowledge facts and figures that the smart assistant uses to answer everyday questions.

Previously, Alexa would simply shut users down with responses like “I don’t know that but I’m always learning,” or “Sorry, I didn’t understand the question.” The newer, smarter Alexa will respond by saying, “OK, if you ask me a question and I don’t know the answer, but I find out later I’ll notify you.”

It’s another shot over the bow at Google Home, which has been racing to catch up to Amazon’s healthy lead in market share. However, a recent survey by AdWeek demonstrates Google’s expertise when it comes to A.I., as Google Home was found to be six times as likely as Alexa to answer a user’s question, a test that employed over 3,000 factual questions.

The news broke just as Amazon was doing a splashy presentation on NBC’s Today show where Toni Reid, Amazon’s vice president for the Alexa Experience and Echo Devices Group told NBC’s Jo Ling Kent that the company is striving to make its A.I. more “humanlike.”

“A lot of people were having conversations with Alexa, some of these things didn’t need a response,” Reid said. “’Alexa, I love you,’ ‘Alexa, I’m lonely,’ ‘I’m sad,’ ‘I’m happy.’ We’re really thoughtful about some of the responses we have, and sometimes you can be lighthearted and fun and other times you have to be thoughtful about it, if someone says, ‘I’m depressed,’ how do you handle that?”

Reid also said, “You don’t know what you’re missing until you actually use the device,” noting that personalization is the focus of what’s next for Alexa.

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