What is Alexa? How it works and what it can do
Best answer: Alexa is Amazon's cloud-based voice service platform that powers an entire smart device ecosystem. With its constantly-improving artificial intelligence capabilities, Alexa can respond to simple queries and perform complex routines to provide information, entertainment, and general assistance to its users.
- Smart saver: Echo Dot (3rd Gen) ($50 at Amazon)
- Show me some more: Echo Show 5 ($90 at Amazon)
What exactly is Alexa?
Alexa is an artificial intelligence (AI) service powered by Amazon's vast cloud computing infrastructure. It was unveiled to the world in late 2014 when Amazon introduced the Echo smart speaker through an invitation-only offering to Prime subscribers, and it rolled out to the general public in the U.S. the following year. Alexa and Echo are currently available in over 40 countries worldwide, with Brazil being the most recent addition in late 2018. As of early 2019, Amazon reported over 100 million Alexa-enabled smart devices in use around the world — from first-party Echo speakers to third-party devices.
Many still get a bit confused on the differences between Alexa and the Echo. Here's the short answer: Alexa is the AI service, whereas Echo is the physical device one uses to interact with Alexa. Put another way, Alexa is like the internet, and Echo is like your laptop.
Users can take advantage of Alexa's abilities by issuing voice commands to "smart" devices such as an Echo speaker in order to achieve their desired outcomes. For example, users can ask Alexa to play music, provide sports scores, check the weather or news updates, automate and secure their home, communicate with friends and family, and much, much more.
How you can put Alexa to work for you
We've already said that Alexa can provide you with hours of entertainment, functionality, and productivity enhancements. Now we want to show you how you can really put the smart assistant to work! With just a few tips you can mazimize Alexa's value and minimize your stress.
For example, did you know that you can change Alexa's wake word? If you prefer, rather than calling out "Alexa" you can summon the smart assistant by saying "Amazon," "Echo," or my personal favorite, "Computer."
Once you have your commands down, you can really start flexing your smart assistant's muscles. Alexa can do quite a bit with no tweaking or customization; however, if you want to expand its capabilities even more, consider enabling some Alexa Skills. Alexa Skills can be thought of as Alexa's version of apps. Some are created by Amazon and affiliated partners, but the vast majority have been created by third parties. Independent developers and large companies alike have published skills for Alexa to help you do things like order a pizza from Dominos, call up an Uber, or play fun games like Golden Girls Trivia.
You can even go further into customizing what Alexa can do for you by creating Routines and Blueprints. Routines allow you to create custom triggers and actions to enable Alexa to automate processes for you, whereas Blueprints provide a way for novices to try their hand at creating custom Alexa skills in a beginner-friendly way.
With Alexa able to do so much for you, you may be worried about what Amazon knows concerning you and your habits. Recent privacy scandals across the technology industry have raised legitimate concerns about users' digital rights.
Thankfully, Amazon has one of the most robust sets of privacy controls in the industry with its Amazon Privacy Hub. Here, users can review and delete voice recordings, set limits and permissions on what data Amazon can collect, and get a better understanding of how their data is being used. This can be achieved in the Alexa app, on the web, and on select Echo Show devices. Certain Alexa devices like the Echo Show also have covers that can shut off access to the cameras.
The Amazon Alexa service has undergone rapid iteration and development over its first five years and is poised to continue to make significant progress in the areas of machine learning and artificial intelligence.
Dave Isbitzki, Chief Evangelist for Alexa at Amazon, often likes to talk about how Alexa has helped to usher in the era of voice-first, ubiquitous computing. In fact, it's been said that Alexa was inspired by the always-listening voice computer on the Starship Enterprise from Star Trek. It's no surprise that such pop-culture references have made it easier for many to accept and adopt AI services like Alexa into their daily routines.
Will we have Alexa embedded into our walls in the next 10 years? Will we have little Alexa robot-butlers roaming the hallways of our homes like Rosie from the Jetsons? Who knows. At this point, anything seems possible!
Get started with Alexa
Faced with so much functionality, we encourage you to take the plunge and see just what Alexa can do for you. If you are new to the Alexa ecosystem, we suggest you get started with one of these devices below.
Alexa on the Cheap
Full-sized functionality in puck-sized speaker
The Echo Dot is a good entry point into the Alexa ecosystem. It's unobtrusive, has most of the functionality of larger Echos, and comes at an affordable price.
Latest and Greatest
All the Echo you can handle in a perfect package
The Echo Show 5 offers a much cheaper entry point into the smart display space in a size that makes it suitable for almost any surface.
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Jeramy is the Editor-in-Chief of Android Central. He is proud to help *Keep Austin Weird* and loves hiking in the hill country of central Texas with a breakfast taco in each hand. You can follow him on Twitter at @jeramyutgw.