How Alexa Got Her Personality

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

Echo Dot
Courtesy of Amazon

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.