LAS VEGAS—Bark out “Alexa” in the congested halls of CES, and you would have heard a chorus of devices, from cars to smartphones to household appliances, answer back.
OK, so not literally, but Alexa is assuming an increasing role across numerous products, a sure sign Amazon is leaning on its vocal digital assistant to spread its artificial intelligence system everywhere, and certainly go well beyond the popular Echo speaker where Alexa got its start.
Rival Google Assistant wasn’t as prominent at this CES, though hot chipmaker Nvidia aims to expand the artificial intelligence-powered assistant's reach throughout the home. Also, Google announced integrations with Mercedes-Benz and Hyundai, and Rishi Chandra, the vice-president for Google Home, gave a talk on smarter homes.
Microsoft’s Cortana and Apple’s Siri had a much lower profile at CES as well, but none of these Amazon rivals should be underestimated in the voice-driven AI space, which is still in its relative infancy.
For its part, Amazon announced more than 35 new partners this week, some that embed cloud-based Alexa smarts directly into their own products, and are completely independent of Amazon’s own Echo, Echo Dot, or Fire TV with Alexa. And some that still require Echo’s and Echo Dots, adding to the more than 7,000 “skills” that Alexa is capable of.
Around the massive trade show you found Alexa as the voice behind the humanoid Lynx robot that UBTECH Robotics has just introduced. And Alexa is a new voice inside Ford’s Sync3 infotainment system.
The Mate 9 phablet from China’s Huawei that came out in the U.S. Friday becomes the first smartphone in the world to have Alexa preinstalled, pitting it against Siri in the iPhone, and the Google Assistant in Android devices.
Another Chinese company, Lenovo, is bringing out the Lenovo Smart Assistant, essentially Lenovo’s own version of an independent Echo-like speaker. It will cost $129.99 when it arrives in May, or $50 more for a model with premium Harman Kardon audio.
Alexa Voice Services will also be embedded into the yet-to-be priced LG Smart InstaView refrigerator. You might say “Alexa, we need ice” and the fridge will turn on the ice maker. Or you might use your voice to have Alexa search recipes or play music—InstaView is a Bluetooth speaker too.
Needless to say, Amazon will presumably be all too pleased to have you restock the LG fridge by ordering groceries right there via Alexa and Amazon Prime.
Amazon, of course, is encouraging all these partnerships. “We‘ll never be able to build all the potential devices out there between smart home and wearables, and automobiles,” Amazon Alexa vice president Steve Rabuchin told me during an interview. “We can’t do it alone. We look to the developer community to innovate on our behalf and innovate using Alexa.”
Whirlpool is among the companies adding skills that require Echo or and other Alexa-enabled Amazon products. So you’ll be able to say to an Echo, “Alexa, ask Whirlpool to put the drier into wrinkle shield” or “Alexa, preheat the oven to 350.”
You can similarly control Samsung’s new POWERbot VR7000 robot vacuum by voice through an Echo. And starting this month, ADT customers will be able to arm and disarm their security via their voice and Echo products: “Alexa, Tell ADT to disarm my security alarm, using PIN 3095.”
Of course, some products are compatible with more than one assistant: Belkin says its $34.99 Wemo Mini home automation smart plug works with Amazon Echo and Google Home devices, for instance.
And even before all these companies descended upon Las Vegas for CES, the Wynn hotel announced its intention to supply Echo speakers in every room.
All this activity is good news for Amazon, but whether Alexa-everywhere is also good stuff for consumers will vary. I'm a fan of Echo but it remains to be seen how well each partner exploits the Alexa relationship. Google is further along, for instance, in letting you have a "conversation" with a digital assistant. And by no means count out Apple or Microsoft.
Consumers must also be mindful of privacy, what with all those devices listening and capturing what you have to say.
Still, anyone who has spent a lot of time with Alexa generally likes the exchange.
“I think it’s going to help Amazon and I think it’s going to help the industry because (Alexa) is already an accepted format,” says Tom Campbell, chief technologist and corporate director for Video & Audio Center, a Los Angeles area-based retail chain. “So the more you can broaden that format into your car, into other devices, you’re comfortable with it because you already know and you use it and you trust it.”
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