Alexa was one of the forerunners of digital assistants, but with the rise of generative AI, Amazon’s one-time cultural phenomenon has become less relevant.

Now, however, Amazon could be preparing to unveil an updated version of Alexa, featuring generative artificial intelligence, to better compete with the chatbots that are flourishing online and soon on PCs and other devices. CNBC reports the changes will also be financial, with Amazon planning to charge a monthly subscription fee to utilize the new service.

Amazon declined to comment directly on the report, but noted that the company has been talking about upcoming AI upgrades to Alexa for months.

Alexa has been around for 10 years now and seemed revolutionary when it first launched. As the years went by, though, its functionality has become more on par with that of a compact clock radio. Owners might use it for a timer, to listen to music, perhaps as a vocal command for connected lights, or an easy way to check the weather, but it has failed to keep up with the abilities of generative AI.

OpenAI, last week, showcased ChatGPT-4o, which can understand vocal queries and respond with speech of its own, which not only made it a viable Alexa competitor, but one with substantially greater abilities—such as the ability to instantly understand and reply naturally in a number of languages. It also can be interrupted conversationally and adjusted as necessary and even sing and laugh. It is, however, not yet available to consumers.

Ask Alexa to laugh, and she’ll reply flatly, “Sure. I can laugh. Tee-hee.” It’s not exactly the most authentic of artificial emotions.

Alexa was reportedly one of Jeff Bezos’s favorite projects, which was why it received such a push when he was running Amazon on a day-to-day basis. Under current CEO Andy Jassy, however, the technology has been de-emphasized, with updates to the product line, but no major advancements.

Previously, Amazon has tried to tie Alexa with AI. In 2023, the company showcased what it called “an upgraded, AI-powered Alexa.” Added the company: “Soon, customers in the U.S. will be able to preview some of the capabilities enabled by generative AI by saying, ‘Alexa, let’s chat’ to Echo devices they already own. In this preview, speaking to Alexa will feel more natural and conversational than ever before, and Alexa’s ability to reason, infer customer intent, and understand complex requests will remarkably improve.”

The product, which still has yet to launch, failed to distract people from other AI systems, though. In late 2023, the company laid off “several hundred” jobs in its Alexa division.

Amazon, in its annual shareholder letter last month, said it was “building a substantial number of GenAI applications across every Amazon consumer business. These range from Rufus (our new, AI-powered shopping assistant) to an even more intelligent and capable Alexa.”

The company has also been working on its own large language model, known as Titan, which presumably power an AI-enhanced Alexa.

As for the monthly cost, CNBC reported that the subscription would not be included as part of Amazon Prime and that the company has not yet finalized what the fee would be. OpenAI charges users of its most advanced ChatGPT $20 per month, but Amazon could undercut that substantially in a play to attract more customers. 

Last September, though, Amazon executive Dave Limp, in an interview with Bloomberg, did foreshadow a time when Alexa users would not only pay for the service, but see it as a value. “I do envision this remarkable Alexa out at some period of time,” he said. “I’m not going to pull the crystal ball out here and predict exactly when that is, but it’s not years away. It’s not decades away. It’s a tractable problem. If what I think the team is building comes to fruition, I will pay for it every day and Sunday.”

 

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