Amazon’s voice assistant Alexa is not only at home on many of the online retailer’s Echo speakers, but is also being integrated into more and more smart speakers from other manufacturers (e.g. Sonos). If users address a voice command to them, Alexa usually responds within a few seconds. But what happens in this short period of time? We trace the path of a voice input – and show how Alexa works.
What is Alexa and what can it do? Alexa functions at a glance
For Amazon Echo speakers (e.g. Echo Dot 3) or Echo Displays (e.g. Echo Show 2), Alexa will respond as soon as their activation word is pronounced. This is “Alexa” by default. If you like, you can also change the activation word. For other devices (e.g. some Fire Tablets) Alexa responds at the push of a button.
Alexa can rap, news retrieve and even shop
Alexas feature set is extremely wide and ranges from telling jokes, answering knowledge questions and playing news or music, to creating shopping lists or to-do lists on demand. Prime members can even use Alexa to buy voice commands directly from the Amazon Store. If, for example, the command “Alexa, order coffee” is given, Alexa will name the top listed coffee including price and ask for an order confirmation.
Due to her artificial intelligence Alexa learns constantly and recognizes user-specific language habits and preferences with regular use ever better. For example, Alexa uses already heard songs for the command “Alexa, play music”.
Alexa voice control works with lawn mowers, fitness trackers, door locks and much more.
In addition to the standard functions already mentioned, Alexa can also control Smart Home components in the home or garden. The selection of Alexa compatible devices is not only limited to smart lamps and thermostats, as many beginners believe. Mowing and suction robots, dishwashers and washing machines, headphones, televisions, electric door locks, surveillance cameras and even certain functions in the car can now be operated with the voice assistant. Alexa skills (from third-party providers) that can be downloaded free of charge can also be used to individually expand Alexa.
What do I need for Alexa and what does it cost per month?
The Alexa language software can be used via Alexa compatible speakers or the Alexa App. For it to work, the smart voice assistant must be connected to the Internet and connected to an Amazon account. Apart from the costs for the Internet connection, there are no subscription fees or other costs for using Alexa.
However, if you want to operate your household appliances by voice command, you have to buy new compatible devices or upgrade your existing ones.
How Alexa works technically
Depending on the model, the technical equipment of the Alexa smart speakers can vary considerably. This is especially true for Amazon Echo alternatives from other manufacturers. The basic equipment of most of Amazon’s own Alexa smart speakers (e.g. Amazon Echo 2), on the other hand, includes seven microphones plus an audio chip in order to record speech inputs as interference-free as possible. In everyday life, Alexa listens constantly, but only sends those voice inputs to the Amazon cloud that are initiated with the activation word (default: “Alexa”). In the Amazon cloud, these voice inputs are analyzed by the Alexa Voice Service. The Alexa Voice Service is a self-learning software that draws conclusions from all (even misunderstood) voice inputs. The aim is to constantly improve the user’s understanding. In rare cases, Amazon employees even listen in, as our report on the Amazon eavesdropping attack shows.
The Alexa Voice Service pays particular attention to keywords and translates incoming voice input into computer commands. These computer commands are forwarded to the relevant apps or services that provide the requested data (e.g. weather data from the weather app). This data is then translated back into human language, sent back from the cloud to the Amazon Echo and announced there by Alexa.