Alexa Is Still Taking Language Lessons

August 24, 2018

Though Amazon has been aware of the problem for a while, Alexa still responds better to people who sound like those she grew up with than she does to others. It is a problem many of us can relate to, but one the company really needs to solve as it continues to deploy its voice-activated digital assistant worldwide.   TheNextWeb cites a recent Washington Post study as it reports, “Alexa Needs Better Training to Understand Non-American Accents.” It is worth noting it is not just foreign accents the software cannot recognize—the device has trouble with many regional dialects within the US, as well.

“The team had more than 100 people from nearly 20 US cities dictate thousands of voice commands to Alexa. From the exercise, it found that Amazon’s Alexa-based voice-activated speaker was 30 percent less likely to comprehend commands issued by people with non-American accents. The Washington Post also reported that people with Spanish as their first language were understood 6 percent less often than people who grew up around California or Washington and spoke English as a first language.Amazon officials also admitted to The Washington Post that grasping non-American accents poses a major challenge both in keeping current Amazon Echo users satisfied, and expanding sales of their devices worldwide. Rachael Tatman, a Kaggle data scientist with expertise in speech recognition, told The Washington Post that this was evidence of bias in the training provided to voice recognition systems.‘These systems are going to work best for white, highly educated, upper-middle-class Americans, probably from the West Coast, because that’s the group that’s had access to the technology from the very beginning,’ she said.”

Yes, the bias we find here is the natural result of working with what you have where you are, and perhaps Amazon can be forgiven for not foreseeing the problem from the beginning. Perhaps. The article grants that the company has been working toward a resolution, and references their efforts to prepare for the Indian market as an example. It seems to be slow going.

Cynthia Murrell, August 24, 2018

Digital Assistants Working Hard to Be More Human

July 8, 2018

Whether you use Alexa, or Siri, or Cortana, or a host of other AI-infused digital assistants, the producers of that technology have something in common: they want those electronic personalities to be more human. Interesting moves are being made in this world to make that happen, according to a recent Inquirer story, “Microsoft Snaps Up Semantic to Make Cortana Seem a Bit Less Robotic.”

According to one Microsoft exec:

“Combining Semantic Machines’ technology with Microsoft’s own AI advances, we aim to deliver powerful, natural and more productive user experiences that will take conversational computing to a new level.”

The story continued:

“Google, of course, has Duplex which can make natural sounding voice calls on your behalf. It has also suggested it is looking into the idea of giving Assistant a back story.”

However, this comes with a consequence. As Wired pointed out, as these assistants get more comfortable with inflection and reading our voices, the opportunity for manipulation becomes eerily more present. These near-human tools are not to that point yet, but we don’t doubt that it’ll arrive soon. Who wants to type when one can talk, think a human is on the other end of the connection, and be so much more efficient.

Patrick Roland, July 10, 2018



Voice: Why Write? Why Read?

May 16, 2018

Voice search is the next big thing in the search industry for those younger than I. This is a pretty universally accepted trend among tech thinkers. With that in mind, it’s a good time to look at one’s own personal use and your business uses for search, and ask: “Do I need to talk instead of thinking, doing a bit of research, and then formulating a query?”

The is for millions upon millions of mobile enabled is, “Why on earth would I waste time doing those inefficient things?”

We learned more from a recent article in The Next Web, “By 2020 30% of Search Will Be Voice Conducted. Here’s What That Means for Your Business.”

According to the story:

“I would also invest in trying to get clients to review my restaurant on Yelp and Tripadvisor so that when people click through, they will see relevant and recent information on my restaurant. If I were providing services, I would make an effort to get listed in Yelp and Google My Business to increase my chances of showing up.”

Another big way to prepare that experts are recommending is to think about SEO in a totally different way. The way we search through our fingertips and through our voice boxes are totally different. In short, we tend to say less than we type when searching so SEO will have to be even more precise than before. This is only the tip of the iceberg. Get ready for irrelevant results, quite a bit of floundering around for the information one requires, and manipulation.

Those free services come at a cost. But aren’t chatting and voxing easy?

Patrick Roland, May 16, 2018

Listening and Voice Search: A Happy Tech Couple

April 26, 2018

Voice search is the next big thing in the search industry. This is a pretty universally accepted trend among tech thinkers. With that in mind, it’s a good time to look at your own personal use and your business uses for search and inquire whether or not you are ready. Chances are, you aren’t. We learned more from a recent article in The Next Web, “By 2020 30% of Search Will Be Voice Conducted. Here’s What That Means for Your Business.”

According to the story:

“I would also invest in trying to get clients to review my restaurant on Yelp and Tripadvisor so that when people click through, they will see relevant and recent information on my restaurant. If I were providing services, I would make an effort to get listed in Yelp and Google My Business to increase my chances of showing up.”

Another big way to prepare that experts are recommending is to think about SEO in a totally different way. The way we search through our fingertips and through our voiceboxes are totally different. In short, we tend to say less than we type when searching so SEO will have to be even more precise than before.

However, “Amazon’s Alexa Had a Flaw “That Let Eavesdroppers Listen In” reminds Beyond Search that in order to answer a question, the devices have to listen. Amazon’s Alexa had a “flaw” which allowed third parties to use the device like an old school “bug.” According to the write up, Amazon fixed this problem.

How many other always on listening devices are just listening, analyzing, and sending data into a federated database?

Toss in online search and cross correlation, and one has an intriguing way to gather intelligence.

Stephen E Arnold, April 26, 2018

About That Voice Search. Flawed Maybe?

February 17, 2018

Voice search has been touted as the next exciting frontier in search and big data by pundits around the globe and right here. Undoubtedly, the potential for voice search are eye-popping. However, we are starting to wonder if, at best it will be another over-hyped tech bubble, or at worst a snake oil sale. We got to thinking more about voice search and its flaws from a recent Search Engine Land story, “What 3,000 Voice Search Queries Tell Us About the ‘Voice Search Revolution.”

The story’s author put his own family’s voice search data to the test to see if marketers and designers could draw anything valuable from it. His findings left us a little flat:

“I have three kids under 8 years old, so not every query was crystal clear. When I categorized the queries, “unknown” was my sixth-largest category, and it comprised queries like my six-year-old daughter asking Google Home, “Does Google Home belong to me or my little brother” and queries I didn’t know we were making, like “All right, Blake if you’re going to be good you can come down,” after I told my 3-year-old he could come down from his time out.”

This experiment and his other homework show that most users just ask for the weather or a kitchen timer or children request the same song a dozen times a day. Not exactly the mine of data we were hoping for. This falls right in line with others, like Digiday, who recently tried showing how flawed the voice search revolution is. These are convincing glimpses, but we are still holding out hope that there’s more behind the curtain.

Patrick Roland, February 17, 2018

IBM Out-Watsons Watson PR

March 15, 2017

I noted that IBM can store data in an atom. I marveled at IBM’s helping with arthritis research. I withdrew my life savings to bet on IBM Watson’s predictions for the next big thing. Wow. Busy that Watson smart software is. Versatile too.

What I found interesting is that IBM has announced that it has knocked the cover off the ball with its speech recognition capabilities. Too bad Amazon, Google, Microsoft, and Nuance think they know how to perform this Star Trek-type function trick. Clueless pretenders if the IBM assertion is accurate.

Navigate to another IBM “real” journalistic revelation in “Why IBM’s Speech Recognition Breakthrough Maters for AI and IoT.”

I learned:

IBM recently announced that its speech recognition system achieved an industry record of 5.5% word error rate, coming closer to human parity.

Yep, an announcement. Remember. Google’s speech recognition is on lots of mobile phones. Dear old Microsoft, despite the missteps of Tay, landed a deal with the dazed and confused UK National Health Service. And Amazon. Well, there is that Alexa Echo and Dot product line. And IBM? Well, an announcement.

The write up reveals that a blog post makes clear that IBM is improving its speech recognition. As proof, the write up points out that IBM’s error rate declined. IBM does that with its revenues, so maybe this is a characteristic of the Big Blue machine.

But I particularly enjoyed this bit of analysis:

Reaching human-level performance in AI tasks such as speech or object recognition remains a scientific challenge, according to Yoshua Bengio, leader of the University of Montreal’s Montreal Institute for Learning Algorithms (MILA) Lab, as quoted in the blog post. Standard benchmarks do not always reveal the variations and complexities of real data, he added. “For example, different data sets can be more or less sensitive to different aspects of the task, and the results depend crucially on how human performance is evaluated, for example using skilled professional transcribers in the case of speech recognition,” Bengio said.

Isn’t this the outfit which Microsoft relies upon for some of its speech wizardry. So what exactly is IBM doing? Let’s ask Alexa?

Stephen E Arnold, March 15, 2017

Take the Time for Alexa

March 6, 2017

In the new digital assistant line up, Alexa responds better than Cortana and Siri, because it can provide better and more intelligent services that the smartphone based app.  As an Amazon product, as with Amazon Web Services, developers can learn how to build apps and other products for Alexa.  The question is how to get started?  HeroTurko created a learning tutorial for interested Alexa developers and it can be checked out at, “Amazon Alexa Development From Beginner To Intermediate.”

Voice-based apps are a growing sector in the technology industry and will only get bigger as the demand for voice-controlled technology increases.  The tutorial is designed to teach developers how to design voice apps and then launch them on the Amazon Echo.  Building your Alexa skills is a necessary step, so the course says, to get an edge on the voice app market:

The biggest industries in technology are surrounded by AI, Bots, and Voice technology. Voice technology I believe will be the new 21st user interface that will not only understand basic commands, but will be so smart to understand anything you tell it. This is why Amazon is making a big bet with Alexa, which it plans to generate close to $11 billion dollars by 2020. They know something about Amazon Echo, which is why now is the best time to learn these skills before the mainstream starts developing applications. We all know the story about apps for the smartphones, this is the same thing.

This course contains over 50 lectures and 1.5 hrs of content. It’s designed for beginners to play with new platforms in the voice space. You’ll learn the tools needed to build the Alexa Skills, how Alexa Skills work, and publish a skill to Amazon’s Alexa store.

Learning how to use Alexa is the precursor to designing other voice app and will probably segway into NLP.  If you want to learn where the IT market is going beyond machine learning and artificial intelligence, this is one of the places to start.

Whitney Grace, March 6, 2017

Beyond Search Evolution Underway

March 1, 2017

Today we are introducing changes to Beyond Search. We are approaching 10 years of daily publication and in that time enterprise search and content processing has undergone a significant change. Enterprise search is no longer exciting. In fact, a number of companies have pivoted to different services. Search has become for many a utility at best or a ho-hum solution. Web search has degraded to the lowest common denominator of generating revenue via ads. The handful of “objective” Web search systems walk a perilous cliff edge between paying their bills and providing an index to a subset of publicly accessible content. We will continue to cover important items in Beyond Search, but we are shifting our focus to products and services related to voice-centric information access.

The Beyond Alexa blog is in its formative stages. We have started to flow content into this new service. It will include Augmentext-type stories (for information follow the link), special articles, short videos on voice related topics, and inclusions (a fancy word for sponsored content or in my lingo, ads with information value). The idea is that Alexa has become an interesting product niche, but the impact of voice-related information access is now changing rapidly. Frankly it is more dynamic than the decades old keyword search business.

You can view the alpha version of Beyond Alexa at this link. As we ramp up the service, we will have other announcements about the service. We passed the 15,000 article milestone in Beyond Search last year. Since early 2008, we have tracked the keyword centric approach to finding and making sense of information. Our changing focus reflects the fact that I wrote about years ago in Searcher Magazine. Keyword search linked to a keyboard, if not dead, was headed for marginalization.

That’s why we want to explore “beyond” Alexa, Amazon’s odd little voice activated box which does a bang up job of providing the temperature and almost friction free impulse shopping. We think there’s more “beyond” Alexa. We want to explore the new world of ubiquitous and Teflon-slick  information access.

Stephen E Arnold, March 1, 2017

Bradley Metrock and the Alexa Conference: Alexa As a Game Changer for Search and Publishing

February 2, 2017

Bradley Metrock, Score Publishing, organized The Alexa Conference held in January 2017. More than 60 attendees shared technical and business insights about Amazon’s voice-search enabled device. The conference recognized the opportunity Amazon’s innovative product represents. Keyword search traditionally has been dependent on a keyboard. Alexa changes the nature of information access. An Alexa owner can talk to a device which is about the size of a can of vegetables. Alexa is poised to nudge the world of information access and applications in new directions.

Bradley Metrock, Score Publishing, organized The Alexa Conference in January 2017. An expanded event is in the works.

After hearing a positive review of the conference, its speakers, and the programming event, I spoke with Mr. Metrock. The full text of the interview appears below:

Thanks for taking the time to speak with me.

Delighted to do it.

What path did you follow to arrive at The Alexa Conference?

A somewhat surprising one. My background is in business, but I’ve always been keenly interested in publishing.  It’s fascinating how the world of publishing has been ripped open by technology, allowing us as a society to shed gatekeepers and hear more stories from more people than we ever would have otherwise. In 2013, when I was in the process of selling a business, I discovered Apple’s iBooks Author software.  I couldn’t understand why more people weren’t talking about it.  It was such a gift: the ability to create next-generation, interactive and multimedia digital books that could be sold on Apple hardware (iPads at first, then later iPhones) all for no cost.  The software was completely free. I formed Score Publishing, published books using iBooks Author, and organized the annual iBooks Author Conference which all sorts of people attend from all over the world.  It’s been fun.

Where does Alexa fit into your interest in publishing books?

I approached Alexa at first from the standpoint of digital content creators: What do they need to get out of this tool?  And out of the Internet of Things, in general?

Do you have an answer to this question about using Alexa as an authoring tool?

No, not yet. My long-term ambition with Alexa is to produce authoring tools for it that allow content creators to leverage their content effectively in an audio-only environment.  Not just audio books, but the creation of voice-enabled applications around published works, from books to white papers and so forth.

What is needed to make it easy for an author or developer to leverage Amazon’s remarkable device and ecosystem?

That’s a good question. The first step toward doing that is learning Alexa myself and incorporating it into what Score Publishing already does.  To that end, we decided to put on the first-ever Alexa Conference. We experienced directly the incredible value in bringing communities of people together on the iBooks Author side of things.  We saw the same exact things with the just-completed Alexa Conference and can’t wait to do it again next January. In fact, we’re already planning it.

What were some of the takeaways for you from The Alexa Conference?

I think Amazon has opened an entirely new world with Alexa that perhaps even they didn’t fully appreciate at first.  Alexa puts voice search in the home. But far from just new ways to buy products or services, Alexa allows every computing interface that exists today to be re-imagined with greater efficiency, while also creating greater accessibility to content than ever before.  My eyes were opened in a big way.

Can you give me an example?

I can try, but it’s hard for me to even begin to explain, being relatively new to the technology and the ideas that Alexa (and IoT in general) bring to the table, but a good place to start is the summary from the first Alexa Conference.  This report gives a taste of the topics and ideas covered.

One of the most interesting events at The Alexa Conference was the programming of an Alexa skill. You called it the Alexathon, right?

Yes, and it was fascinating to watch the participants at work and then experience what they created in less than 24 hours. Developers are red-hot for this technology and are eager to explore its full potential.  They understand these are the early days, just like it was a decade ago with iOS apps for the iPad and iPhone. They see, in my opinion, a combination of opportunity and necessity in being part of it all.

What was the winning Alexa skill?

The winner was Xander Morrison, the Digital Community Coordinator at Sony Music’s Provident Label Group. It took Morrison just 24 hours to create his Nashville Tour Guide as an Alexa skill.

How does Alexa intersect with publishing?

I think the publishing industry doesn’t really understand the implications of the internet of things on its business. Companies like HarperCollins, whom I invited to be part of The Alexa Conference, sent Jolene Barto to the conference. She described how her company built an Alexa skill for one of the company’s most important markets. Her remarks sparked a lively question-and-answer session. HarperColllins seems to be one of the more proactive publishers in the Alexa space at this time.

Is it game over for Google and the other companies offering Alexa-type products and services?

No. I think it is the dawn of the voice enabled application era. Right now, it looks as if Alexa has a clear lead. But the Internet of Things is a very dynamic technology trend. The winner will probably be the company which creates tools.

What do you mean tools?

Software and system that make it easy for digital content to flow into it and be re-purposed in new and exciting ways.

Is this an opportunity for you and Score Publishing?

Yes. As I mentioned earlier, this is an area I want Score Publishing involved in. We may create some of the tools to help bridge the gap for content creators. Many authors and publishers have no interest in learning how to code. Alexa and the competing products do not make it easy for authors and publishers to get their content into the ecosystem all the same.

Google has a competing product and recently updated it. What’s your view of Google with regard to Alexa?

Google is definitely in the fray with Apple Siri and Microsoft Cortana. Also, there are several other less well known competitors. Amazon’s primary advantage is how early Amazon opened up Alexa to third-party development.  Alexa’s other advantages include the sheer marketing reach of Amazon. I learned at the conference that Amazon has done a great job in promoting promoting its hardware, from the Echo, Tap, and Dot. Now the the Amazon Kindle has Alexa baked into the device. Amazon has, in contrast to Apple and Google, demonstrated its willingness to spend significant dollars to advertise both Alexa and Alexa-enabled hardware.

However, Google has something Amazon doesn’t–search data.  And Apple has the dominant mobile device.  So there are advantages these other companies can bring to bear in competing in this space.  I want to point out that Amazon has its shopping data, and its Alexa team will find ways to to leverage its consumer behavior data as Alexa evolves over time.

What are your ideas for The Alexa Conference 2018?

Yes. We will be having another The Alexa Conference in January 2018. The event will be held in Nashville, Tennessee. We want to expand the program. We hope to feature topic and industry-specific sub-tracks as well. If your readers want to sign up, we have Super Early Bird passes available now. There is a limited supply of these. We expect to announce more information in the next month or so.

How can a person inte4reserted in The Alexa Conference and Score Publishing contact you?

We have a number of de-centralized websites such as the iBooks Author Conference, the iBooks Author Universe (a free online learning resource for iBooks Author digital publishing) and now, the Alexa Conference.  Following us on Twitter at @iBAConference and @AlexaConf is a great idea to stay in the know on either technology, and to reach me, people can email me directly at

Thank you for taking the time to speak with me.

Stephen E. Arnold, February 2, 2017

Voice Search: An Amazon and Google Dust Up

January 26, 2017

I read “Amazon and Google Fight Crucial Battle over Voice Recognition.” I like the idea that Amazon and Google are macho brawlers. I think of folks who code as warriors. Hey, just because some programmers wear their Comicon costumes to work in Mountain View and Seattle, some may believe that code masters are wimps. Obviously they are not. The voice focused programmers are tough, tough dudes and dudettes.

I learned from a “real” British newspaper that two Viking-inspired warrior cults are locked in a battle. The fate of the voice search world hangs in the balance. Why is this dust up covered in more depth on Entertainment Tonight or the talking head “real” news television programs.

I learned:

The retail giant has a threatening lead over its rival with the Echo and Alexa, as questions remain over how the search engine can turn voice technology into revenue.

What? If there is a battle, it seems that Amazon has a “threatening lead.” How will Google respond? Online advertising? New products like the Pixel which, in some areas, is not available due to production and logistics issues?

No. Here’s the scoop from the Fleet Street experts:

The risk to Google is that at the moment, almost everyone starting a general search at home begins at Google’s home page on a PC or phone. That leads to a results page topped by text adverts – which help generate about 90% of Google’s revenue, and probably more of its profits. But if people begin searching or ordering goods via an Echo, bypassing Google, that ad revenue will fall. And Google has cause to be uncomfortable. The shift from desktop to mobile saw the average number of searches per person fall as people moved to dedicated apps; Google responded by adding more ads to both desktop and search pages, juicing revenues. A shift that cut out the desktop in favor of voice-oriented search, or no search at all, would imperil its lucrative revenue stream.

Do I detect a bit of glee in this passage? Google is responding in what is presented as a somewhat predictable way:

Google’s natural reaction is to have its own voice-driven home system, in Home. But that poses a difficulty, illustrated by the problems it claims to solve. At the device’s launch, one presenter from the company explained how it could speak the answer to questions such as “how do you get wine stains out of a rug?” Most people would pose that question on a PC or mobile, and the results page would offer a series of paid-for ads. On Home, you just get the answer – without ads.

Hasn’t Google read “The Art of War” which advises:

“Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt.”

My hunch is that this “real” news write up is designed to poke the soft underbelly of Googzilla. That sounds like a great idea. Try this with your Alexa, “Alexa, how do I hassle Google?”

Stephen E Arnold, January 26, 2017

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