The big goal for Alexa is a nice, long chat, says Alexa's chief scientist

By Jefferson Graham
An Amazon Echo
Amazon | YouTube

Amazon wants you to have long, real conversations with Alexa, its popular personal digital assistant.

The e-tail giant recently released new tools to app developers that allow Alexa to whisper, show emotion and pause naturally, like we humans do. And that's just the start, says Rohit Prasad, Amazon's head scientist for Alexa, who is playing a key role in the retailer's efforts in artificial intelligence for Alexa—using computers to converse with us.

"I truly believe that for AI to be useful in our daily lives, it has to be something you can connect with," Prasad said in an interview here. "Conversation is the next step, to be more human-like."

Alexa competes with other personal digital assistants like Apple's Siri, Microsoft's Cortana and the Google Assistant and has emerged as one of the leaders in voice computing. The Echo product is one of Amazon's most popular, and many head-to-head reviews cite Alexa as the most effective.

Home delivery gets easier and faster through Alexa
Home delivery gets easier and faster through Alexa

Alexa, most often heard in the form of an Echo or Dot speaker, is good at playing us our morning news and music on command and telling us what the weather and daily calendar looks like, Prasad says.

But he wants more.

The goal is to have Alexa be able to conduct an actual 20 minute conversation.

Amazon has commissioned a grant program, where it's working with 12 teams of university students who are competing to solve the problem and win a $2.5 million prize.

The Alexa Prize will be selected in November, but examples of the "socialbots" will soon appear in some Amazon accounts, letting consumers converse on "popular topics," like entertainment, fashion, politics, sports, and technology. Amazon posted an example of a hypothetical, future extended conversation with Alexa on its website:

"User: Let's chat about the Mars Mission.

Socialbot: There are multiple Mars missions, some public and some private.

User: Who do you think will succeed?

Socialbot: I think more than one will succeed. The first one to get to Mars will open the doors for others.

It goes on, but readers should note this type of bot chat is more hope than reality right now. We tried this with Alexa on Tuesday and didn't get very far.

Prasad is based in Boston, home to some of the nation's top universities, and on the other side of the country from the Seattle Amazon headquarters. He was in town to speak at the Milken Institute Global Conference on a panel about AI, or artificial intelligence. USA TODAY sat down with him before the session, for an exclusive #Talking Tech podcast interview.

Amazon is encroaching on Apple's turf with Alexa
Amazon is encroaching on Apple's turf with Alexa

Asked to offer examples of how he uses Alexa every day, Prasad mentions waking in the morning to news and weather on demand, plus a recitation of the traffic patterns and his daily calendar. "It's taken a lot of friction out of our lives and given me time to do other things."

For now, our conversations with Alexa are done in USA and United Kingdom English (applying local norms and idioms) and German. Prasad said the goal is to expand to other languages, but he didn't reveal timetables, nor what the next language will be.

In our interview, we asked Prasad to clarify privacy concerns expressed online by many Amazon customers—what exactly is Alexa recording of our home conversations? Is it picking up our entire dinner table chats, or just the ones that begin with the "Alexa" wake word?

"Just the wake word," he said. Amazon's recorder kicks in when it hears the word, after which the assistant is then programmed to respond and converse.

Amazon says the recordings are stored online, kept to improve the accuracy of results. Consumers can delete them — a consumer protection that Amazon also cites with its Amazon Echo Look. That new version of Echo, a $199 speaker with a built-in camera that takes photos to better advise on clothes purchases, raised some privacy hackles with its launch. It is, after all, an Internet connected device designed to sit in an owner's closet.

Keeping users' trust as they increasingly share their personal details with Amazon's intelligent assistant will be key, particularly as Amazon vies with its rivals for share of consumers' time and attention.

It will be a long road. While Prasad is optimistic, he admits the dreams will take some time to become a reality. That 20 minute conversation Amazon hopes we'll have with Alexa?

"We could cross the ten minute barrier now, but 20 minutes is extremely hard," he says. "This will be a long journey."

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