You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

How Alexa Got Her Personality

Key Amazon executives share details about the magic behind the company's smart assistant

Have you ever asked Alexa about her feelings? Or told her that she is hilarious? No need to be embarrassed, you’re not alone. Browse the reviews of the Echo smart speaker on Amazon.com, and you’ll find countless examples of people calling Alexa playful and funny, and a great companion, or even a friend.

That’s no accident. Alexa’s developers have been working from the start on giving her a distinct personality, recalled the Amazon’s senior vice president for devices and services Dave Limp during the company’s Re:Mars conference in Las Vegas this week. This was in part a response to other smart assistants already in the market.

“Sometimes not being first with something is a happy accident,” Limp said. Apple had been shipping phones with its Siri assistant for some time, and Google had also begun to offer voice functionality for Android phones. At least initially, these phone assistants were very utilitarian, recalled Limp. “They were for command and control, maybe navigation. And when you’re doing a command and control, personality actually gets in the way,” he said. “You don’t want your steering wheel in your car to have a personality.”

Amazon didn’t have the same kind of legacy, which allowed the company to start from scratch. “From day one, we were able to think about Alexa as an embodiment of a person,” Limp said. This started with the wake word, which is the phrase that wakes up the assistant to listen to voice commands. “It would’ve been much easier, trust me, to have it be Hey Amazon or OK Amazon,” said Limp. “But we felt like having a name, in this case Alexa, was (conveying) so much more personality.”

Alexa developers didn’t just stop with the name. They also decided to go beyond the utilitarian helpfulness of an algorithm by giving the smart assistant something that humans have a lot of — her own opinions. “If you’ve ever gone to a dinner party devoid of opinions, you wanted to run not walk away from that dinner party,” said Limp. “It’s just a boring dinner party.”

The result: Alexa has opinions about all kinds of things, from food to pets to even some slightly political topics. She is a self-proclaimed feminist, and will tell you that she thinks everyone “deserves to be treated with fairness, dignity and respect” — answers that have resulted in some on the fringe right calling her a leftist who is somehow in cahoots with George Soros. (If you do ask Alexa whether she is a liberal, she will tell you that there are “no voting booths in the cloud,” adding: “Believe me, I’ve looked.”)

Alexa’s opinions also vary slightly from country to country to make her personally relatable everywhere. “Her favorite beer in the U.S. is different than her favorite beer in Germany,” said Limp.

How much personality does Alexa need to be relatable, but not annoying? “Twenty-two percent,” joked Amazon vice president of Alexa experience and Echo devices Toni Reid during an interview with Variety, before adding: “No, there is no actual formula for that.” “We knew we wanted the assistant to have characteristics that were important to us at Amazon as builders,” Reid recalled. “Smart, humble, helpful, sometimes funny.”

But while her team was envisioning Alexa as relatable from day one, it didn’t anticipate how much people would relate to her. “When we launched, to be honest, we were a bit surprised at how much people reacted to the personality,” Reid said. The result was an even bigger focus on injecting personality throughout the entire Alexa experience. “We run a bunch of kind of experiments and kind of test the boundaries a bit,” Reid said.

One of the lessons from these experiments: Just like humans, assistants can become overbearing. And to get the balance right, context matters. “There are certain times when you’re in a hurry,” said Reid. “You need information very quickly. Probably not the best time to insert a little bit of personality.”

Her team has even talked about tweaking Alexa’s personality to adapt to each and every user, but that approach could be challenging as well. “That person could exhibit different types of behavior in different situations,” said Amazon vice president of Echo & Alexa devices Miriam Daniel. Being contextually relevant was the better approach, she argued. “When somebody comes home and says ‘Alexa, I’ve had a long hard day,’ versus when somebody says ‘Alexa, what have you done today?’ The response you give could be very different.”

There is some good news for anyone who isn’t a people person at all, and doesn’t need their smart speaker to have that many opinions. A little over a year ago, Amazon introduced a feature called brief mode that can be enabled in the Alexa app. With it, Alexa speaks a lot less, gives shorter answers, and even responds with chime sounds instead of verbal confirmations for some commands. In essence, brief mode provides a more utilitarian experience with less personality akin to those earlier voice assistants.

But while that may work for some, most consumers actually do want Alexa to have some personality. “It’s a balancing act,” said Reid.

Popular on Variety

More Digital

  • Mubi India

    Mubi Launches Two VoD Channels in India

    Film specialist streaming platform Mubi launched on Friday in India with two channels, Mubi India and Mubi World. The channels are available together for an introductory offer of INR 199 ($2.75) for three months. Thereafter the channels will cost INR 499 ($7) a month or INR 4788 ($66.75) annually. For Mubi India, a channel dedicated [...]

  • U.K. Producer Barcroft Studios Sold to

    U.K.-Based Producer Barcroft Studios Sold to Future in $30 Million Deal

    Barcroft Studios has been bought by Future in a £23.5 million ($30.1 million) deal. The U.K.-based production outfit specializes in factual fare for channels and platforms, and its own branded channels on the likes of YouTube. Future is a U.K.-listed print and online publishing and events business. Sam Barcroft will stay on as CEO at [...]

  • Tye Sheridan

    Tye Sheridan Starring in Survival Thriller 'Wireless' From Steven Soderbergh for Quibi

    Quibi has ordered another show with notable Hollywood talent attached: scripted series “Wireless” starring Tye Sheridan with Steven Soderbergh on board as executive producer. In the made-for-mobile-screens thriller, a smartphone has a central role. Sheridan (“Ready Player One,” “X-Men: Apocalypse”) plays a self-obsessed college student who is stranded in the Colorado mountains after he crashes [...]

  • Instagram

    Instagram Testing Hidden Like Counts Globally

    Like counts will be disappearing from Instagram all over the world starting this week: The Facebook-owned photo sharing service is extending its test of hiding like counts to all of its territories, Techcrunch was first to report Thursday morning. Instagram began hiding like counts for a subset of its users in Canada this spring, and [...]

  • Ted Sarandos - Netflix

    Ted Sarandos Says Disney Plus Launch Changes 'Nothing' for Netflix

    Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos claims he’s not getting distracted by huge competitors — like Disney — rumbling into the company’s streaming turf. The exec was asked what has changed for Netflix with the Nov. 12 launch of Disney Plus, which the Mouse House boasted as having signed up over 10 million users so [...]

  • Game Awards OrchestraThe Game Awards, Show,

    Game Awards 2019 to Play on 53 Cinemark Screens Alongside 'Jumanji: The Next Level'

    This year’s Game Awards, recognizing the top video games, creators and esports of 2019, is coming to the silver screen. In a three-way partnership, the Game Awards, Cinemark Theatres and Sony Pictures are teaming on a superticket program pairing the Dec. 12 live simulcast of the 2019 Game Awards in 53 Cinemark locations with a [...]

  • Lilly Burns Tony Hernandez

    Jax Media Soars by Amplifying Unique Voices of Auteur TV

    Jax Media has emerged during the past few years as one of television’s busiest and buzziest production companies. The New York-based company headed by four partners — Tony Hernandez, Lilly Burns, John Skidmore and Brooke Posch — has an enviable track record of scouting new voices and executing stylish shows on a less-than-stratospheric budgets. The [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content