Amazon's next big bet is letting you communicate without a smartphone, says Alexa's head scientist

Key Points
  • Amazon's VP of Alexa says the Echo's new calling feature is about to take off, suggesting the smartphone could take a backseat.
  • Alexa now has 25,000 skills, adding 10,000 in three months.
  • Amazon would be happy for Alexa to work with Google, Apple digital assistants, Alexa's head scientist says.
Amazon Alexa VP: Echo calling feature is revolutionizing communication
Amazon Alexa VP: Echo calling feature is revolutionizing communication

The next big function to take off on Amazon's Echo devices will be voice or video calling — which is a way Alexa can reduce the need to have your smartphone on your at all times, the VP and head scientist at Alexa Machine Learning said.

"If you have not played with calling, and the video calls on Echo Show, you should try it because that is revolutionizing how you can communicate," Rohit Prasad said Tuesday in an exclusive interview with CNBC at an Alexa Accelerator event in Seattle. (The event is dedicated to developing new voice-powered technologies.)

"When you can drop in on people who have given you access — so I can drop in and call my mom in her kitchen without her picking any device — it's just awesome." (Amazon added the ability to call mobile numbers and landlines for free onto Echo devices a few weeks ago.)

Amazon doesn't have a smartphone that lets customers bring a digital assistant everywhere — like Apple's Siri and Google's Assistant — and communicating through Alexa devices is one way of reducing the need for a personal handset, Prasad said

"I can easily drop in and talk to my kids," Prasad said. "They don't have a smartphone so that's my easiest way to talk to them. It's yet another area where Alexa is taking the friction away."

Asked whether we'd see a smartphone or smart glasses (which are reportedly in the works) from Amazon, Prasad said he couldn't comment on the future roadmap but he didn't rule it out.

"We do want Alexa to be everywhere, so our customers can do their daily tasks with minimum friction and anywhere they need it," he said.

Alexa: Amazon's fourth pillar?

Where does Alexa and artificial intelligence fit into Amazon's larger business?

"Jeff [Bezos] has said Alexa could become one of the four pillars," Prasad replied. "I think we want to get there, still very very early for us."

He added with a laugh, "we have had a pretty good start."

Bezos, in his 2016 letter to shareholders, identified the company's three main pillars: marketplace, Prime and Amazon Web Services, its cloud computing business. But he also wrote: "I assure you that we also remain hard at work on finding a fourth."

Onlookers have speculated that the fourth pillar could be anything from logistics to video content to groceries or Alexa, and Amazon is making big bets in all these spaces.

Prasad noted that five years ago Alexa was just getting started. "Our vision was to build a computer that you can talk to anywhere, built into anything and is accessible to every demand you have and wherever you need it."

Since then, Amazon has sold 15 million Echo units, according to a recent report from Consumer Intelligence Research Partners. Prasad said Alexa now has more than 25,000 skills — up from 15,000 in July. Five years from now, users will be having 20-minute conversations with Alexa, he said.

On partnerships

Over the summer, Amazon and Microsoft teamed up to work together to extend the abilities of their voice-controlled digital assistants. Some analysts found it an unusual partnership, but Prasad said it was an easy decision.

"Microsoft has all the office applications around calendars, email — clearly that was a great synergistic relationship to have on behalf of our customers and so that was a fairly easy decision for us to make because we want to do the right thing for our customers. Alexa talking to Cortana is going to be better for our customers."

When asked if Amazon was open to partnerships with other competitors in the artificial intelligence, like Google and Apple, he said he couldn't comment on whether anything was in the works, but said he'd be happy to work with both companies.

Correction: This story was revised to correct when Alexa had 15,000 skills. It was in July.