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The Quest to Make Alexa More Human
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A Cornell University study from May called “Alexa is my new BFF” proves the point. Researchers analyzed 587 customer reviews of the Amazon Echo smart speaker, powered by the Alexa voice assistant. They found that the more we personify the Pringles-can-shaped gizmo — using words like “Alexa” and “her” instead of “Echo” and “it” — the more satisfied we are with the device (I mean “her”).

“Simply put, people who love her, love the Echo,” the researchers wrote.

Sitting in a sunlit conference room in Seattle last month on the eighth floor of Amazon’s new black-glass highrise called Day 1, I mention the report to Heather Zorn, director of customer experience and engagement for the Alexa team. She isn’t surprised by the findings; she’s been reading the reviews, too.

“We’ve really done more in the personality space based off of customer demand,” says Zorn, a friendly, bookish woman with a quirky streak. “We saw some customers sort of leaning in and wanting more of a jokes experience, or wanting more Easter eggs or wanting a response when you said ‘Alexa, I love you.’”

And so, Amazon writers have added dozens of “delighters” to Alexa — including beatboxing, telling groan-worthy dad jokes, and singing a so-bad-it’s-good barbershop quartet diddy about technology (“Without the Wi-Fi, I couldn’t say hi” … it gets worse from there). The goal, Zorn says, is to make the AI both useful and fun. Amazon also created several Alexa personality traits, including smart, approachable, humble, enthusiastic, helpful and friendly.

Amazon is already figuring out ways to make Alexa more conversational, allowing her to remember more about you and carry on longer chats. Those kinds of interactions may allow us to build something like relationships with our smart speakers — making them integral parts of our lives. That could someday give voice assistants from Amazon and its rivals Apple, Google, Microsoft and Samsung even more influence over how we communicate, what we buy and how we get information.



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