Amazon Alexa now ‘echoes’ from Valley to Kanyakumari

AI assistant’s 20,000 skills in India includes telling scores

Amazon is betting big to sell its voice-activated artificial intelligence assistant Alexa in the country and woo Indian consumers. The online retail giant said that Alexa had acquired 20,000 skills such as telling cricket score, conducting quizzes and doing utilities to serve Indian customers since last October when it launched Alexa-powered Amazon Echo line of speakers in the country.

The skills of Alexa, which competes with Google Assistant, Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana, have “grown by 100% in just a year as it started with 10,000 skills” in the country, according to Amazon.

“We have got hundreds of thousands of people [who have bought Echo devices]…all the way from Jammu and Kashmir to Kanyakumari to Port Blair. We got a lot of diversity of utterances,” said Puneesh Kumar, country manager for Alexa Experiences and Devices, Amazon India, in an interview. If one stacked all the Echo devices sold in India so far, the combined height “would be over four times taller than Mount Everest,” he said.

13-year-old developer

Amazon is proactively creating a valuable ecosystem around its Alexa voice computing platform, according to research firm CB Insights. It said currently, the Alexa platform offers software development kits (SDKs) that allow third-party developers to build skills for the AI assistant. Amazon also works with hardware manufacturers to integrate the Alexa assistant into their products.

“We have an open platform where anybody can build a skill very easily,” said Dilip R.S., country manager for Alexa Skills, Amazon India, in an interview. He said that India had over 3.5 million developers and the company wanted to tap into this talent pool.

One such developer is 13-year-old Shyaam Ramesh who is based in Hyderabad, according to Amazon. His school friends were striving to dominate Minecraft, a strategy-heavy online game. With the help of a book, Mr. Ramesh designed ‘Minecraft Tip,’ his first skill on Alexa. It now has almost 5,000 users around the world, according to the company.

Alexa skills are also helping students to learn better. Amazon said Amol Bhuyar a schoolteacher in Warud, Maharashtra, is using Alexa to help students learn with just their voice. Mr. Bhuyar first bought an Amazon Echo device and then covered it to make it look like a robot so that his students could relate better to Alexa.

It has not only made the students fluent in the English language, but also enhanced their knowledge by answering queries related to subjects such as science, general knowledge, history and geography.

Alexa has more than 50,000 skills available on its platform. Amazon owes the formation of Alexa hardware to Lab126 and many of its early recommendation algorithms to A9, both of which are secretive units in Silicon Valley, according to CB Insights. It said as part of its strategy, Amazon was doubling down on AI for Amazon Web Services and the ecosystem around its Alexa.

It is seeking to become the central provider for AI-as-a-service, but not leaving retail behind either, running grocery, book, and convenience stores across the U.S., said CB Insights.

CB Insights said that many newer (possibly “pillar”) initiatives — such as the Alexa platform for voice-enabled apps — aligned with Amazon’s core e-commerce business and were already beginning to pay dividends by enabling more frictionless commerce. It said Amazon’s customers can already order and purchase items directly through Alexa. Prime members can access exclusive discounts and content through the platform. Alexa also unlocks a new source of revenue: vocal commerce. Alexa’s “skills” allow users to seamlessly order more Amazon goods, in addition to hailing cabs and ordering pizzas through a growing list of third-party integrations, according to CB Insights.

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