As Alexa grows in sophistication, it will be that much harder to throw the Echo on the heap of old gadgets to be hauled off on electronics-recycling day. Rohit Prasad is the head scientist on Alexa’s artificial-intelligence team, and a man willing to defy local norms by wearing a button-down shirt. He sums up the biggest obstacle to Alexa achieving that sophistication in a single word: context. “You have to understand that language is highly ambiguous,” he told me. “It requires conversational context, geographical context.” When you ask Alexa whether the Spurs are playing tonight, she has to know whether you mean the San Antonio Spurs or the Tottenham Hotspur, the British soccer team colloquially known as the Spurs. When you follow up by asking, “When is their next home game?,” Alexa has to remember the previous question and understand what their refers to. This short-term memory and syntactical back-referencing is known at Amazon as “contextual carryover.” It was only this spring that Alexa developed the ability to answer follow-up questions without making you say her wake word again.
Alexa needs to get better at grasping context before she can truly inspire trust. And trust matters. Not just because consumers will give up on her if she bungles one too many requests, but because she is more than a search engine. She’s an “action engine,” Prasad says. If you ask Alexa a question, she doesn’t offer up a list of results. She chooses one answer from many. She tells you what she thinks you want to know. “You want to have a very smart AI. You don’t want a dumb AI,” Prasad said. “And yet making sure the conversation is coherent—that’s incredibly challenging.”