Quantity Of 'Skills' Doesn't Mean Quality In Amazon Echo's Alexa

Sep 20, 2017
Originally published on September 20, 2017 10:35 am
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If you have an Amazon Echo then you know Alexa. She's the voice-enabled assistant who can do all sorts of stuff - tell you the weather, call you an Uber. From KERA in Dallas, Lauren Silverman explains how Alexa learned so many skills and also why quantity does not always mean quality. And we should note Amazon does sponsor some programming on NPR.

LAUREN SILVERMAN: Hey, Alexa. Open cat facts.

COMPUTERIZED VOICE: Here's your cat fact. Tigers are excellent swimmers and do not avoid water.

SILVERMAN: Alexa knows a lot, and not just about cats. At the start of the year, she knew how to do 7,000 things. Now she has more than 15,000 so-called skills. That's way more than the 60 you can activate with Microsoft's Cortana-powered speaker or the hundreds of third-party apps you can trigger by saying hey, Google, to a Google Home speaker. Part of the reason for Amazon's skill explosion? Independent coders, like the group gathered here at a downtown Dallas bootcamp at Coding Dojo.

PRAGATI SRIVASTAVA: Alexa, can you play some Bollywood music?

COMPUTERIZED VOICE: Playing Bollywood music.

SILVERMAN: Pragati Srivastava is a software-engineering student at the University of Texas at Dallas. She's developed an app for Microsoft's virtual assistant and now wants to set one up for the Amazon Echo at her house.

SRIVASTAVA: Probably a music app.

SILVERMAN: Amazon has made it really easy to develop a skill in a few hours, and most get certified. Adam Marchick, CEO of the research company VoiceLabs, says that's part of the problem.

ADAM MARCHICK: If you look at the 15,000 apps, how many apps are really high-quality? A small fraction.

SILVERMAN: There are lots of apps or skills reviewers like to make fun of. Among them, Egg Facts, Fart Sounds Generator, and Remember Your Keys. That last one reminds you to grab your keys, but only if you ask Alexa to open Remember Your Keys.

COMPUTERIZED VOICE: Go find your keys. You can't leave without them.

SILVERMAN: It's the first skill developed by Seattle-based creator Wing Mui. Mui didn't really expect anyone to download it. According to VoiceLabs' research, even when people download a skill, there's only a 3 percent chance they'll open it again after the first week. Natalie Hereth, PR manager for Amazon Alexa, says no idea is too silly.

NATALIE HERETH: It's early days. We like the fact that developers are experimenting with skills.

SILVERMAN: For these skills to gain traction, Marchick says Amazon will need to attract more experienced developers. The company has announced plans to start paying some top-performing developers, but right now it mostly offers perks like free devices, T-shirts and socks.

MARCHICK: Is that a sustainable strategy? No. If I spend 50 hours to make a quality app, do I either get vanity, millions of users or money? And right now very few apps are getting those things.

SILVERMAN: Dallas developer Darian Johnson hopes he will see a check for the most popular skill he's created called Chess Master.

DARIAN JOHNSON: You can ask Alexa to recommend a move. That's the most complicated one I've built.

SILVERMAN: In a way, you're essentially working for Amazon for free.

JOHNSON: Yeah (laughter). There are - there are days I feel like it, but I - I think I get something out of it, too. So I'm learning a lot of new skills.

SILVERMAN: For now the thrill of coding is enough. But Johnson admits he still gets frustrated when Alexa doesn't understand his commands. Back at the Coding Dojo bootcamp, Pragati Srivastava tries to remain patient.

SRIVASTAVA: Alexa?

COMPUTERIZED VOICE: Please try again.

SRIVASTAVA: Alexa? Alexa?

SILVERMAN: One day, voice assistants will play the right Bollywood song, maybe even heat-up our cars before we leave the house. But for the most part, even market leader Alexa is still best at simple tasks like reciting cat facts. Lauren Silverman, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.