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Amazon Wants to Make Alexa a Lot More Conversational

Expect to have longer conversations with your smart speaker soon: Amazon revealed plans at its Re:Mars conference in Las Vegas Wednesday to give its Alexa smart assistant capabilities to carry on longer conversations, and help consumers with services across different providers.

Alexa head scientist Rohit Prasad demonstrated the assistant’s new conversational capabilities, dubbed Alexa Conversations, with a video on stage. The video showed a consumer asking for movies that were playing nearby, settle on a film, find showtimes that matched her schedule, buy the tickets, find a restaurant nearby and reserve a table, all without ever having to break the flow of her conversation with Alexa.

“We imagine a future where you would be able to naturally converse with Alexa,” said Prasad. “This is a big leap for conversational AI.”

Amazon devices and services senior vice president Dave Limp told reporters later that the company had been developing this night out-themed experience as well as a few others that connected multiple skills internally. “We’ll roll those out in the coming months,” he said. At the same time, Limp acknowledged that this was just the tip of the iceberg. “It will take us years to get more and more conversational,” he said.

One of Amazon’s early partners for the night out experience has been Atom Tickets. “Atom believes in delivering on the promise of convenience and we are exploring ways to via our app experience to make planning a night out with friends easier than ever,” said Atom Tickets head of product Chris Brucia. “It makes sense to do this with voice as well and we’re excited to introduce this through Alexa Conversations to drive discovery and engagement with our skill.”

During a Q&A with reporters, Limp also recalled that Amazon early on envisioned Alexa to be an assistant with personality, and not just a transactional voice engine. “It started with the wake word,” he said, explaining that it would have been a lot easier for the company to use a phrase like “Okay Amazon” to activate the assistant on an Echo smart speaker — a not-so-subtle jab at Google.

Limp said that Amazon had an entire team committed to Alexa’s personality, which varied from region to region. “You can ask Alexa what her favorite beer is, and her favorite beer in the U.S. is different from her favorite beer in Germany,” he said.

As conversations with Alexa get longer, Amazon will look at ways to carry on conversations across multiple devices, acknowledged Limp. “Your conversation doesn’t stop when you move from your kitchen to sit down and watch ‘Game of Thrones’ in your living room,” Limp said. “Over time, Alexa has to be able to do that as well.”

He added that Amazon was starting to put the basics for such continued conversations in place by letting people associate Alexa devices with dedicated rooms, and making sure that the right device answered through something Amazon calls Echo Spatial Perception. “We have more to do,” admitted Limp. “We are kind of early innings.”

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