Amazon will now allow third-party companies the unprecedented privilege of accessing the core artificial intelligence underpinning its Alexa digital assistant, a first for the company’s AI platform.
While Amazon has allowed companies to build skills for Alexa and allows pretty much any consumer electronic device maker to integrate Alexa into a compatible product, the e-commerce giant has not licensed the underlying AI tech for use in other assistant-like products. Amazon is calling the new offering Alexa Custom Assistant, and it’s starting out with a focus on the auto market.
Amazon is doing so to allow not just automobile manufacturers, but any company with a need for a digital voice assistant more control over the software experience. This will allow companies to create their own wake words and custom voices and capabilities Amazon says will “co-exist” with Alexa as it’s designed to work today. For the auto market, this provides Amazon the added benefit of having its software built directly into cars.
“Building an intelligent assistant is complex, time-consuming, and costly. Further, the rate of innovation and change is accelerating and assistants are always improving and getting smarter, requiring substantial ongoing investments,” the company explains in a blog post. “The Alexa Custom Assistant addresses this challenge by allowing companies to leverage Alexa’s world-class technology stack to create their own intelligent assistant without the investment, long development cycles, and resources to build it from scratch and maintain over time.”
Amazon says companies will get access to custom wake words that use “the same state-of-the-art process” used for developing new Alexa wake words. Companies can create their own unique voices for the assistants with help from “voice science experts” from Amazon that will help manage the recording process and the machine learning-based algorithms to build out the voice library.
The screens and software experiences inside car have proven to be a ripe market for companies like Amazon, Apple, and Google. But only the latter two tech giants have their own mobile operating systems that allow for plug-in platforms like Apple’s CarPlay and Google’s Android Auto. Amazon has struck some deals with car makers, most recently with Lamborghini and electric vehicle startup Rivian at CES 2021 earlier this week, for direct Alexa integrations, and Amazon’s Echo Auto platform can be accessed via a mobile app or through a dongle you plug into your car. But these aren’t quite as seamless as the competition offered by Apple and Google.
So much like how Amazon has strategically worked around its disadvantage on mobile phones, where Siri and Google Assistant reign supreme, to carve out a dominant position in the smart home, it’s now trying to better position Alexa as a built-in solution in environments that may not require a phone at all, thereby bypassing the need to compete directly with Apple and Google.
The first company that has agreed to build its own Alexa-based assistant is car maker Fiat Chrysler (FCA), which has had an ongoing relationship with Amazon to integrate some of its technology, like Amazon Fire TV-powered screens, into its cars. Financial terms of any arrangement between Amazon and FCA were not disclosed, and it’s not clear whether Amazon is charging car makers to license the AI tech rather than giving it out freely.
Regardless, Amazon also says its intentions are to give all companies, not just automakers, a faster, cheaper, and less complex route to building their own voice experiences that feel tailor-made, instead of simply bolting on an integration with a third-party service.
Alexa Custom Assistant also lets the custom’s AI products stay in control of and dictate information about special features, while Alexa can handle more general app-related requests like music playback and directions. “For example, if a customer asks Alexa to roll down a car window, or how to troubleshoot a device, the request will be routed to the brand’s assistant. If a customer asks the brand’s assistant to play an audio book, the request will be routed to Alexa,” the blog reads.
Amazon says Alexa Custom Assistant will be available starting today to companies in the US and Canada, as well as in Australia, Austria, Brazil, France, Germany, India, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, and Spain.
Update January 15th, 8:46AM ET: Added additional information about Alexa Custom Assistant and how it’s available for more than just car makers.