Amazon Alexa appears on smart speakers and mobile phones, offering friendly assistance and advice on demand. She can manage your diary, play music, answer questions, order groceries from Amazon and control your smart home devices.

But what actually is Alexa?

What is Alexa doing?

When Amazon describes Alexa as a ‘personal assistant’, they underplay much of her capabilities. At the most basic level, Alexa receives and interprets spoken commands, such as telling the time or reading the news headlines.

But there’s a lot going on in the background to make this possible. First, your commands are recorded and sent over the internet to Amazon for processing. This whole process takes a fraction of a second and is the result of many years of hard work by Amazon’s developers.

Much bigger than you think

Alexa is actually the front end of a major artificial intelligence system. Every time you speak to Alexa, the recorded command is saved by Amazon – for a few months at least.

Artificial intelligence systems like Alexa rely on vast amounts of data to “learn” and improve. Alexa is constantly improving itself by analyzing and testing these recordings. Amazon’s developers also use these recordings to extend Alexa’s functionality; providing football score updates, or cinema showing times for instance.

With more than 100 million Alexa enabled devices being used across the world, there is a lot of information being gathered and processed every day. This is why Amazon is able to improve it’s artificial intelligence capabilities so quickly.

An extendable platform

In order to make the technology more useful, Amazon also allows other companies and individuals to create Alexa functionality. Known as “Alexa Skills”, these extensions are like smartphone apps that perform specific tasks.

Domino’s Pizza offers an app that allows you to order a pizza using your smart speaker. Or you can book a cab with Uber. Or download news trivia games to play for instance. You can find and install new Skills using the Amazon Alexa app on your phone.

You don’t have to be an expert developer to build new Skills either. The “Blueprint” functionality allows you to create your own custom apps, using basic templates – Storyteller, Learning & Knowledge, Fun & Games and At Home.

With Blueprint, you entertain you and your family. Or you can automate information sharing tasks, like building useful lists that can be shared with other people using your Alexa smart speaker.

Basic and advanced in one

The really clever part of Alexa technology is its simplicity. It is very easy to use Alexa, and you never have to be involved with artificial intelligence or computer systems that make it work.

Smart speaker technology is still quite new – but it continues to improve, becoming more useful in the process. Apple and Google are both working hard to improve their own smart speakers, so we can expect to see fierce competition – and a lot of new features – over the next few years.

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