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Alexa’s latest upgrades help it listen to multiple people and ask clarifying questions

Its tone will also adjust based on the conversation

Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

During Amazon’s event today, the company announced a range of improvements that are coming to Alexa. The company says the voice assistant will be better at responding to multiple people, and that in other cases, it will be smarter about asking and remembering the answers to clarifying questions. Alexa is also being updated to change its tone in response to a conversation.

These new capabilities were demonstrated across a series of demos. The first shows off how users are able to directly teach Alexa after it asks clarifying questions. In the presentation, Alexa was asked to “set the light to Rohit’s reading mode.” The voice assistant was able to understand that it didn’t know what this reading mode was meant to be and asked the clarifying question, “What do you mean by ‘Rohit’s reading mode’?” When the presenter, Rohit, told Alexa that his light should be set to a certain percentage while in reading mode, Alexa was able to store that information and remember it for next time.

Alexa will be able to understand when it needs to ask a clarifying question and remember the response.
Image: Amazon

Another upgrade focuses on making Alexa sound more natural by understanding the conversation’s context and adjusting its tone accordingly. Alexa might place more stress on certain words or take more pauses, Amazon says.

A final demonstration showed two people asking Alexa to join their conversation. After this, the voice assistant could understand when it was being directly addressed, versus when the two people were talking to each other. All of this happened without them having to use Alexa’s wake word in the middle of the conversation.

A demonstration showed two people interacting with Alexa simultaneously.
Image: Amazon

Amazon typically announces a number of upgrades for Alexa at its major hardware events, alongside smaller updates that appear throughout the year. Last year, the company announced a range of new features for its voice assistant, including a new more natural-sounding voice, a multilingual mode designed for bilingual households, and a “frustration detection” feature which lets Alexa apologize when it gets your requests wrong. Oh, and who could forget the special Samuel L. Jackson voice skill (which was then expanded this year)?

Over the course of 2020, Amazon also announced some more minor updates for Alexa. The voice assistant received a new longform speaking style designed for content like podcasts in April, and just this month Amazon announced Alexa for Residential, a new program to make it easier to integrate Alexa devices into rental properties.