May 17, 2023
Amazon Unveils New Gadgets as AI Race Heats Up
(Bloomberg) -- Amazon.com Inc. introduced an updated slate of Echo devices and pledged to bring ChatGPT-style artificial intelligence to Alexa-powered gadgets.
For more than a year the digital assistant has been using a home-built set of large language models — the foundational networks that enable ChatGPT and rival technologies — to help summarize text gathered from the web and make Alexa more conversant in various languages, Dave Limp, Amazon’s senior vice president of Devices & Services, said in an interview.
New, more conversational capabilities will “roll out incrementally,” he said. “It’s not years away, but there are some things that we have to solve.”
Amazon on Wednesday announced four updated Alexa devices:
- The Echo Pop, which takes the company’s spherical, fabric-covered Echo Dot smart speaker and slices it in half. The semi-spherical device, which sells for $40, comes with technology borrowed from Amazon’s eero router subsidiary that can extend the range of home Wi-Fi
- A revamped Echo Show 5, which pairs Alexa with a 5-inch screen. Amazon says the $90 speaker is 20% faster than the prior generation and has clearer sound.
- An updated edition of the Echo Show 5 Kids comes with a year of Amazon’s Kids+ subscription with age-appropriate audiobooks, videos and games. It will sell for $100.
- A new version of Amazon’s Echo Buds loses the noise-cancelling feature of previous editions, but, at $50, comes in at less than half the price. The buds let users listen to music and summon Alexa on the go.
The company also said more than 500 million Alexa-powered devices have been sold by Amazon and other companies. The majority of those are Echo speakers and Fire TV streaming sticks and televisions, Limp said.
The company’s devices are “in hundreds of millions of homes,” he said.
Read more: Amazon Plans to Add ChatGPT-Style Search to Its Online Store
Amazon doesn’t break out quarterly or annual sales for its devices, though Limp said Alexa usage was up 35% from the prior year and that shopping via the assistant increased 40%. Still, analysts and technology executives say interest in the digital assistant has plateaued as users reach the limits of its capabilities or give up trying new things. The software is adept at setting timers and reading out news updates, but can struggle with complicated queries or conversational tasks.
Those limitations have become more obvious in recent months with the debut of chatbots like OpenAI’s ChatGPT, which can pull off credible, if sometimes error-prone, imitations of human interactions. Microsoft Corp. and Alphabet Inc.’s Google are already incorporating “generative AI” into their search engines and other products — putting pressure on Amazon to make Alexa more conversational.
Limp said Amazon is proceeding cautiously with its own generative AI. Among the challenges the company is hoping to solve is how Alexa interacts with multiple family members in a home, and how to prevent the software from making things up.
“If you say turn on those lights, those lights ought to go on,” he said. “You’re going to see us make a lot of progress this year with Alexa and large language models.”
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