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Amazon flexes AI muscle with new ‘more personal’ Alexa

The tech giant has previewed an updated, more conversational version of its voice assistant which will be rolled out in the near future.

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The new Amazon Echo Show 8 smart home hub

Amazon has previewed a new, more powerful and conversational version of its Alexa voice assistant as the focus on AI-powered computing intensifies among the tech giants.

Microsoft and Google have both launched text-based generative AI apps this year, which use artificial intelligence to respond to prompts in a way barely distinguishable from humans’ output.

The sudden rise of such technology has sparked greater scrutiny of AI from regulators, given its explosion into general use and concerns over its potential impact on human life as well as industry, jobs and education.

During a live event to unveil its latest range of Alexa-powered devices, Amazon looked to reaffirm its position as a market leader in AI by showing off an update to the assistant that will allow for more natural conversations with Alexa, rather than just the transactional request fulfilment it currently runs on.

In a live demonstration of Alexa’s new large language model (LLM), Amazon devices boss Dave Limp showed how the new version of the assistant will be able to be more expressive in its responses – for example sounding happier when returning a positive sporting result for a user’s favoured team.

Based within a new section of the service called “Let’s Chat”, Alexa will respond without the use of a wake word first, be able to pick up a conversation after a break and still understand the context, as well as understand inferences and more vague prompts in a way that Limp said is “like talking to a friend”.

For example, the new Alexa will respond to the prompt “I’m cold” by turning on the heating in a connected home.

Amazon has not confirmed a general release date for the new version of Alexa, instead focusing on an early preview programme in the US to try out the new capabilities among some users.

Technology expert Ben Wood, chief analyst at CCS Insight, said it was “little surprise” to see Amazon discussing the power of its AI assistant in this way.

“It undoubtedly knows that it needs to keep pace with rivals such as Google and Microsoft so articulating what it is doing in this area was essential for this event,” he said.

“The upgraded way to talk to Alexa certainly makes it a more personal experience but success will depend on Amazon being able to get consumers to engage with the Echo devices in a very different way to the transactional and basic requests used today.

“Some users may find it a little intimidating, but if successful it could make interactions a lot more conversational.”

Elsewhere at its hardware event, Amazon unveiled a string of new hardware products, including several new Alexa-powered Echo smart speakers and smart home hubs, as well as new Fire tablets and updated Fire TV Stick devices.

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