Amazon is updating the Echo so Alexa will listen and remember better


Your Amazon Echo is about to get smarter.

During a talk at the World Wide Web Conference in France on Thursday, Ruhi Sarikaya, the director of Amazon’s Alexa Brain team, gave the public a glimpse of three upcoming features. For those not in attendance, the features were also listed out in a blog post: skills arbitration, context carryover and memory.

Alexa skills are what allow Echo owners to make use of non-Amazon services on their device. With Echo’s upcoming arbitration ability skill, users would be able to add skills to their devices without using their computer or mobile phone. Sarikaya lists an example where Alexa would suggest a skill to match the query. In internal tests, Sarikaya would ask “Alexa, how do I remove an oil stain from my shirt?” and it would offer back the Tide Stain Remover skill.

The latter two skills improve Alexa’s memory. Back in March, Amazon introduced follow-up mode — allowing users to ask the Echo a second question without saying the device’s wake word first (usually “Alexa”). Context carryover improves upon this, better equipping Alexa to properly address follow-up questions. For example, if you asked, “Alexa, what’s the weather in New York?” you could then ask, “What about California?” without using the word “weather” or the device’s wake word.

Continuing with the memory theme, Sarikaya says users will soon be able to tell Alexa things she should remember. According to Amazon’s post, “Alexa can store arbitrary information you want and retrieve it later.” Users can say things like, “Alexa, remember that Sean’s birthday is June 20.” Sarikaya says the feature will arrive this year.

“Alexa, remember that Sean’s birthday is June 20.”

As with most things when it comes to virtual assistants, Alexa’s new abilities come with their own privacy trade-offs. The Echo’s follow-up mode allows users to ask another question without saying the wake word, though it also requires the device’s microphone to listen in on users for longer to do so. Alexa’s memory lets you tell it arbitrary information about Sean’s birthday, even if Sean hasn’t consented to Amazon having that information about him. While date of birth is relatively harmless, the other information friends can volunteer may not be.

Sarikaya didn’t offer a release date for the Amazon Echo feature update, but the post says some abilities, like having Alexa remember random information, can be expected this year.