Alexa goes silent as Amazon downtime mutes assistant

Bad news if you rely on Alexa to control your smart home, stream your music, or educate your kids, with a huge outage making Amazon's assistant temporarily mute. Amazon Web Services have been experiencing regional outages, which have left Alexa either sluggish to respond or failing to answer questions and commands altogether.

While Amazon has several models of Echo smart speaker in its line-up, ranging from the most affordable Echo Dot up to touchscreen-fronted versions like Echo Show and Echo Spot, the actual intelligence for Alexa lives in the cloud. As with any cloud service, therefore, it's susceptible to downtime. While Amazon is yet to comment on this specific incident, it appears that at least some of the servers involved in Alexa recognizing and reacting to voice commands have been impaired.

The result in the home varies. In some cases, when we asked Alexa questions, it took noticeably longer for the assistant to reply. However, at other points the query timed-out completely, with Alexa warning that it had no connection. Some Echo devices are showing a red ring, indicating that there's a problem.

It's poor timing for the Amazon service, given the angle of its recent Super Bowl campaign. In that, the smart assistant lost its own voice, forcing Jeff Bezos & co. to call in the assistance of some celebrity replacements. Gordon Ramsay, Anthony Hopkins, and Cardi B were among the stand-ins for the commercial.

Unfortunately, unless any of them have any server maintenance abilities, they'll be little use for this actual outage. It's not just answering general knowledge questions and making handy measurement conversions in the kitchen, of course. Those relying on Alexa to control their lights, their thermostat, or other smart home devices may find themselves having to actually use the physical controls instead.

It's a reminder that cloud-based processing, though having plenty of power, does have its limitations. Still, that might be something Amazon is looking to address in the future. Currently its Echo speakers have relatively low onboard processing power, effectively little more than is required to recognize the "Alexa" trigger word and pass audio to and from the servers.

Amazon is believed to be working on its own, custom Alexa AI chipset, however. According to reports last month, the new silicon would allow a combination of local and cloud processing on future Echo models. Simple queries, for instance, could be handled on-device with much shorter reaction times, while more complex requests would be parsed in the cloud. Such a system would also be more resilient to server downtime.