Digital assistants are the incarnation of Artificial Intelligence (AI) closest to most people. Not only are they not about to take your job but Alexa, one of the smartest, can’t seem to find many profitable things to do. Parent company Amazon is making cuts to its Alexa division after losing as much as $5 billion per year driving up its usage, reports the Wall Street Journal.
The investment was successful by some measures. Amazon has said that Alexa had 30 percent more customer interactions year over year in 2022, and news website Business Insider has published a detailed analysis showing Alexa currently has an estimated 71.6 million users just in the U.S., all of whom use custom devices that look like little Bluetooth speakers with prices starting from $15 this Cyber Monday.
It seems Alexa answers billions of customer questions per week, but nobody is paying much to hear her go about the weather, or play a song, or add toilet paper to their shopping lists. Comparable AI-driven genies like Google Assistant or Apple Siri pay their way with search ads and hardware sales, respectively. Alexa is different: most Alexa devices are audio only, making it harder to show ads in reply to a query like Google Assistant, and they are sold at cost, as opposed to pricey iPhones.
That doesn’t mean that Alexa is incompetent. Wirecutter, a product review website linked to the New York Times, says Alexa is the best digital assistant, and that it can do more things than Google Assistant—Siri didn’t even make the cut. The review points out that Alexa has over 100,000 “skills,” the audio equivalent of a smartphone app.
Alexa’s resume underscores how very hard is to create a software platform from scratch to compete against the likes of Android and iOS, Apple’s mobile operating system, get people to use it, and recruit developers to create apps for it. Technologists have used the word “evangelize” to refer to the near-biblical mission of convincing others to write software for your platform since the dawn of personal computing.
Try that on a new user interface paradigm like audio, no less, the stuff of science fiction with performance expectations straight from the Turing test and Ridley Scott’s classic 1982 movie Blade Runner. The work is so hard that even deep-pocketed Amazon is losing stomach for it after reporting its first financial losses in years in the latest quarter.
Amazon, which employs 1.5 million people, has told some on its devices staff to look for jobs in more profitable areas of the company, like AWS, its cloud business, or its advertising division. Let’s hope Alexa is smart enough to do the same.
Answer by Friday
Speaking of software hardships, it was a Wednesday like any other when new owner Elon Musk told all of Twitter’s remaining developers to confirm they were ready to sleep at their desks by Friday if they wanted to keep their jobs. After hearing this, at Verb we decided to give a new social network called Post a try to be ready in case Twitter stops working.
Post was started by Noam Bardin, who was the CEO of traffic app Waze until 2021. The software is still in beta phase, and there is a waitlist to join which took us about a week to clear. Once you’re in, the home screen shows you two tabs, “Explore” and “Following.” There is no character limit, and you can reward posts you like with a micropayment system; our account came with a balance of 50 points in its integrated wallet.
Bardin also says you will be able to buy individual articles of news sites you aren’t subscribed to, which is an old dream we have at Verb. Even without that, in our experience Post already looks good. If you decide to join, drop by vicatoru’s to say hi.
A New Interface
Amazon shows some of the coolest future interface ideas anywhere in the new Prime Video show “The Peripheral,” based on William Gibson’s (favorite) novel of the same name. For example, when connected with each other, characters in the show can control the intensity in which they experience another person’s feelings by rubbing their thumb and index fingers together as if twisting a knob in the air.
Gibson, who invented the term “cyberspace” in another novel he wrote in 1982, packed The Peripheral with so many ideas that you’ll walk out with a dozen words to add to your lexicon, like “polt,” “stub,” “aunties,” and “jackpot.” Watch the show and you’ll experience the angst, rage, and joy of these ideas in an echo of The Peripheral’s software. Even Alexa will identify herself when they tell the main character in her offline time, “Your skills and personality are being sadly wasted in this den of imbecility.” Better to log in and enjoy the magic of software.