Amazon’s Alexa develops “funny” new skill
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Amazon’s Alexa develops “funny” new skill

“So my mom & I are just sitting in the living room, neither of us said a word & our Alexa lit up and laughed for no reason. She didn’t even say anything, just laughed.” So read a tweet on March 5. This was not, it turns out, an isolated incident: Amazon’s industry-leading virtual personal assistant (VPA) appears to have been creeping its users out with spontaneous and unpredictable bouts of laughter.

Amazon’s share price has risen over the past five days

graph 1303 amazon alexa

SOURCE: Yahoo Finance

If that sounds… well, a little unhinged to you, don’t worry – you are not alone. One Twitter user asked the artificial intelligence (AI) why she was laughing during an office meeting. “Sorry, I am not sure,” she replied, presumably reassuring no one. In the words of yet another tweeter, Gavin Hightower: “Lying in bed about to fall asleep when Alexa on my Amazon Echo Dot lets out a very loud and creepy laugh… there’s a good chance I get murdered tonight.”

This is the kind of fault that can hobble new entrants into a competitive market. Thankfully for Amazon, it’s a long way from being that. The company is the clear market leader in the VPA world, and it has achieved this through an unparalleled understanding of how users prefer to interact with their AI.

Some months ago, a study showed that Google’s VPA was significantly smarter than Amazons – yet Amazon had captured a far larger segment of the market than its Silicon Valley competitor, and has continued to do so in the months since. The reasons why are simple:

First, Amazon really gets people and convenience. Seemingly little things, like having to precede otherwise natural language with the phrase “hello Google” has a dis-incentivising effect on users. Alexa is easy to talk to, and easy to use – and in a consumer world driven partially by convenience, that’s a surprisingly big draw.

Secondly, Amazon makes incredibly good use of its wider ecosystem. Alexa is tied in to the company’s phenomenally successful ecommerce platforms, which include everything from online retail to music and video streaming. However intelligent she may or may not be, she can do a heck of a lot.

The company thinks it knows what went wrong and is working to fix it now. But it’s unlikely they’re losing too much sleep in the meantime: we all have weird friends, and we don’t ditch them for the occasional bout of disturbing laughter. And what seems to be key to Amazon’s success with Alexa is that many users do seem to consider her a friend.


Dominion holds Amazon in its Global Trends Ecommerce Fund. 

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