Amazon rolled out more than a dozen new devices today in its annual hardware event atop a biodome at company headquarters in Seattle, including eyeglasses and a ring that speak with Alexa, several new speakers, and lots of new devices for the home. Sprinkled in between hardware announcements were a bunch of new ways Alexa is getting smarter.
In all, like last year, nearly a dozen new features were introduced today. Here are some of the standouts.
Education Skills API
One unique offering introduced today is the Education Skills API, a way for skills developers and school districts to connect with popular edtech services like Canvas, Kickboard, and Coursera.
The API will make it possible for Alexa to respond to queries like “Alexa, what homework does Sarah have tonight?” or “Alexa, how did Sam do on the math test?”
Amazon VP of devices David Limp pitched the feature as a way to get answers about your kid when you get home that your kid may be less than forthcoming about.
“We think this will be delightful for parents everywhere. I also think the kids will love it and allow them to keep up to speed, but the parents might love it just a bit more,” he said.
Amazon will begin to provide celebrity voices for some Alexa functions in the future like jokes, weather, and timers, starting with Samuel L. Jackson. Celebrity voices uses speech synthesis to generate models that mimic celebrity voices rather than playing recordings back verbatim. Celebrity voices will cost $1 a month at launch.
Earlier this year, Google Assistant brought John Legend’s voice to users for certain functions as well.
Multilingual home support
Alexa will soon be able to respond to queries in multiple languages to better support bilingual households in India, Canada, and the United States at launch. Alexa is currently able to speak roughly half a dozen languages, and enabling Spanish/English-speaking families, for example, to speak to their assistant in whatever language they see fit is a feature in keeping with the ethos of conversational AI, which works best when it seeks to better understand people rather than making people adjust to the interface.
Google Assistant added multilingual support back in August 2018.
Amazon’s ambition to grow its voice understanding led its Alexa team to launch an Alexa skill last year that asks users to volunteer recordings of their voice in different languages like Mandarin Chinese.
This is a new way for Alexa to greet visitors to you home when you’re unavailable.
The Doorbell Concierge is a more conversational Alexa than the interaction you may be accustomed to in a smart speaker, with the ability to ask questions like “May I know the purpose of your visit?” While speaking through Ring video doorbells, Alexa can take messages for a homeowner, ask the best way to contact a visitor, or even tell a delivery person where to leave a package.
Doorbell Concierge will begin to roll out next year, beginning with Ring Video Doorbell Elite users.
As part of an expansion of Alexa Hunches, a feature that proactively makes recommendations to Echo speaker owners, Alexa will now make Routine recommendations. Routines are a way to customize voice commands or take multiple steps with a single voice utterance.
Until now, Routines could only be created with the Alexa app.
Routines are a feature available for virtually every major AI assistant today because one consistent learning from early AI assistant interactions is that integration into people’s daily habits is one of the best ways to grow assistant adoption rates.
Alexa Guard’s new in-home person detection
Alexa Guard is a home security feature that launched at the September hardware event last year that was able to alternate smart lights as if you’re home and detect the sound of breaking glass or a smoke alarm. Today Alexa Guard expanded to detect when there’s a person in your home from the sounds an Echo device is able to pick up.
This new feature means Alexa Guard will listen for sounds like doors opening or closing, footsteps, or chopping on a cutting board, Alexa chief scientist Rohit Prasad told VentureBeat.
Alexa Guard is also expanding so users can add the security feature to a routine. That way, when you say “Alexa, I’m heading to work,” you can activate Alexa Guard.
Wi-Fi control with Alexa will allow you to pause, shut off, or turn on a Wi-Fi network with your voice. Wi-Fi control with Alexa will first be available with Asus and TP-Link routers and Arris and Linksys users early next year.
Alexa privacy voice commands
Each time the “Alexa” wake word or a similar sound is detected, Echo devices start recording. Human review of these recordings was the source of much controversy earlier this year for Amazon and the makers of AI assistants like Siri, Google Assistant, and Cortana. Today Amazon introduced new voice commands so you can ask “Alexa, tell me what you heard” to verify exactly what the AI assistant recorded or “Alexa, why did you do that?” so you can get an explanation for why it took a specific action. For example, music may turn off in one place when your Spotify or Amazon Music account is in use in another place.
The new commands were introduced alongside a setting to automatically delete voice recordings every 3 months or every 18 months.
The first privacy voice commands were introduced earlier this year for people to delete voice recordings.
Alexa Communications for Kids
A number of features were introduced today for young people, among them Alexa Communications for Kids, a way for kids to make calls to friends or family. Activating this feature requires parental consent for two kids who each have access to Echo devices.
Alexa Guest Connect
Alexa Guest Connect was made to alleviate the issue that arises when you’re at a friend’s place and want to play music from your personal library.
Alexa Guest Connect requires authentication from both the guest and homeowner.
Exclusive Food Network video and live cooking classes
Amazon smart displays like the newly introduced Echo Show 8 will now be able to exclusively rely on Food Network for instructional cooking videos and other content like live classes with popular chefs on the network.