It has been more than a decade since Jeff Bezos excitedly sketched out his vision for Alexa on a whiteboard at Amazon’s headquarters. His voice assistant would help do all manner of tasks, such as shop online, control gadgets, or even read kids a bedtime story.
But the Amazon founder’s grand vision of a new computing platform controlled by voice has fallen short. As hype in the tech world turns feverishly to generative AI as the “next big thing,” the moment has caused many to ask hard questions of the previous “next big thing”—the much-lauded voice assistants from Amazon, Google, Apple, Microsoft, and others.
A “grow grow grow” culture described by one former Amazon Alexa marketing executive has now shifted to a more intense focus on how the device can help the e-commerce giant make money.
“If you have anything you can do that you might be able to directly monetize, you should do it,” was the recent diktat from Amazon leaders, according to one current employee on the Alexa team.
Under new chief executive Andy Jassy’s tenure this change of focus has resulted in significant layoffs in Amazon’s Alexa team late last year as executives scrutinize the product’s direct contribution to the company’s bottom line.
The belt-tightening came as part of broader cuts that have seen the e-commerce giant slash 18,000 jobs across the group amid pressure to improve profits during a global tech downturn.
At Microsoft, whose chief executive, Satya Nadella, declared in 2016 that “bots are the new apps,” it is now acknowledged that voice assistants, including its own Cortana, did not live up to the hype.
“They were all dumb as a rock,” Nadella told the Financial Times last month. “Whether it’s Cortana or Alexa or Google Assistant or Siri, all these just don’t work. We had a product that was supposed to be the new front-end to a lot of [information] that didn’t work.”
Nadella can afford to be blunt: Microsoft’s recent introduction of AI chatbot ChatGPT to its Bing search engine means the company is now seen as a leader in the field, having previously been mostly forgotten by the majority of Internet users.
ChatGPT’s ability to understand complex instructions left existing voice assistants looking comparatively stupid, said Adam Cheyer, the co-creator of Siri, the voice assistant acquired by Apple in 2010 and introduced to the iPhone a year later.
“The previous capabilities have just been too awkward,” he said. “No one knows what they can do or can’t do. They don’t know what they can say or can’t say.”
Efforts to highlight additional functionality, by having Alexa blurt out “did you know” information at sometimes-inopportune times, has only served to frustrate users.