The Present and Future of Alexa & Echo, Amazon's AI-Powered Sleeper Hit

Insights from the FirstMark Hardwired series, a monthly event in New York covering the intersection of hardware and software, including Internet of Things, 3D printing, robotics, and virtual reality. With more than 4,000 members, Hardwired surfaces the stories behind some of the most interesting companies in the world.

When the Amazon Echo launched less than a year ago, many viewed the device as simply another wireless speaker. Over time, however, it’s become clear that Echo represents an inflection point in the mainstream adoption of artificial intelligence.

The Alexa Voice Service is the brain behind Echo. Just say the wake word “Alexa” and Echo responds instantly. You can then ask Alexa to play music, give a weather update, or find the location of the nearest coffee shop, among other tasks. The more you use Echo, the more it adapts to your speech patterns, vocabulary, and personal preferences.



Donn Morrill leads a technical team working on Amazon Alexa, the speech and personal assistant technology behind Echo. In a talk at Hardwired NYC, he laid out Amazon’s plan for Alexa to be an ever-present A.I.-powered assistant, embedded in a variety of devices that surround consumers every day.

Below are a few takeaways from Morrill’s fantastic behind-the-scenes look at Alexa.

Voice will be the primary interface with machines. Ten years ago, it was difficult to imagine a world where the keyboard and mouse would disappear. However, touchscreens have quickly become our most common way to interact with devices. Amazon believes that five years from now voice will be the primary interface.

“The age for touch could soon come to an end,” Morrill said. “We view [voice] as a foundational change in the way people interact with computers.”

Alexa is loved. Echo is the highest rated Amazon device ever — more than Kindle, the Fire tablet or the Fire TV media streaming device. In fact, an internal metric at Amazon is the frequency in which Alexa receives a marriage proposal.

There are no plans for new voices. Morrill said the intention with Alexa is to build a brand, a persona. “We want people to be comfortable with Alexa,” he said.

Amazon wants you to build a trusting relationship with Alexa. The team has put so much research and effort into perfecting the Alexa personality that there’s no current plan to create split personalities for the device. While some may desire a male counterpart to Alexa — Alex, perhaps — such a release is not currently on the roadmap.

Skills are the new apps. Amazon believes it can attract a developer community similar to the mobile app ecosystem. There’s an Alexa API that allows developers to add more capabilities, such as ordering a Domino’s pizza or requesting an Uber. To date, developers have created more than 500 new skills for Alexa.

Alexa will be everywhere. Amazon is making Alexa available to other device manufacturers, with the first versions of those devices rolling out soon.

“We’re talking to partners in every area of electronics — home appliances, home entertainment, wearables. I would expect you will see Alexa-enabled devices in all of those categories in the not too distant future.”

To hear more about the architecture and future plans for Amazon’s Alexa, see the full fireside chat from Hardwired NYC in the video here. To hear more great talks from FirstMark’s Driven events, visit our content library and subscribe on SoundCloud and iTunes.