As smart as smart assistants like Siri, Cortana, and Alexa try to be, they seem to have problems with their short term memory. Ask them a question and they’ll answer promptly. But ask them immediately about something related to that answer and they seem to have forgotten about it entirely. Unless they asked you first, that is. Google, however, has had the ability to take into account the context of these follow-up queries, and now Amazon has silently given Alexa that skill in the latest update to its Echo devices.
Understanding follow-up questions might seem simple, and it probably is for us humans. But for artificial intelligence agents, it’s a marked improvement to have the ability to understand the context of a question, which includes the ability to analyze the answer that was previously given as well.
Very few virtual assistants could boast of such a skill. One of the first was the never to be released Viv, from the original creators of Siri, now owned by Samsung and rumored to be renamed “Bixby”. More recently, Google has boasted of how its Google Assistant is able to hold such a conversation. And now Amazon is following the trend, although to a limited degree for now.
According to those who had the chance to take it for a spin, Alexa seems quite adept at answering follow-up questions involving people and places, but not so much other topics. It also seems to be limited to owners of Amazon Echo and Dot devices in the US. Since there has been no official splash about it yet, it remains unknown when that new talent will roll out elsewhere.
Intelligent personal assistants will be a core focus among the tech titans next year, with Google Assistant trying to carve out a space for itself and Cortana aiming for the IoT market as well. Samsung might also represent a serious threat when it comes out with Bixby. Alexa may have had a head start, but its territory will definitely be challenged and it will need to pick up the pace to safeguard its lead.