Raised in a family of engineers in India, Rohit Prasad’s first research problem was to find a TV on which to watch his favorite show: star trek. “It was back when televisions were still a rarity in India,” he said. “But whenever star trek turned on, I managed to find one and stood in front of it.” Unlike many other Trekkies, Prasad wasn’t a space freak looking to explore new worlds and meet distant civilizations. He was fascinated by the show’s talking computer. “This amazing, omniscient, voice-activated computer that you could make requests to just by saying ‘computer,'” he said. “It was deeply inspirational to me and made me want to build something similar – something that would change people’s lives.”
He has. Prasad has spent the last decade turning Alexa, Amazon’s conversational AI, into a technology that is now empowering people in millions of homes around the world. Amazon recently announced that in addition to his role as chief scientist, Prasad is also the new head of the Alexa business. “We have laid a solid foundation to realize our vision of Alexa being an essential personal assistant, advisor and companion for everyone, everywhere,” he said. “Alexa is one of the most popular and advanced AI applications in the world. I’m excited about the launch of Alexa and look forward to making it even more useful for customers in their daily lives.”
We recently caught up with Prasad to find out more about his plans for Alexa and his passion for AI.
For many people, the talking computer is still science fiction. how do you make it real
I was inspired by the star trek computer and always wanted to be involved in building one just like that. That’s why I focused on language processing in grad school and decided to work on conversational AI as my first job. Over the past 10 years, our team has built Alexa, a service designed to be an essential, trusted AI assistant, advisor, and companion for everyone, everywhere. Today I feel that we are closer than ever to fulfilling that dream.
Where is Alexa now?
I still have to pinch myself. Alexa started as an idea on a whiteboard and somehow in less than a decade has grown into an AI service that millions of customers interact with billions of times a week in different languages and cultures around the world. Even in the last year, Alexa interactions have increased by more than 30%.
What is behind this growth?
Our work begins and ends with the benefit of our customers. We’ve doubled down on the experiences customers love most. For example, when we first launched Alexa, customers could only use the service for a handful of things, such as: B. Play music and set timers and alarms. Today you can use it to control your smart home, watch videos and shows, shop, learn about any topic and much more with more than 130,000 skills available to our customers. All of this is made possible by Alexa’s AI, which is one of the most complex AI systems with over 30 different machine learning systems. A key reason for this growth is not only how much better Alexa has gotten at responding to customer requests, but also how Alexa initiates actions on behalf of customers, which we call proactive support.
Can you give us some examples of proactive support?
Alexa Hues and Routines are two great examples of how Alexa has revolutionized everyday convenience. They allow Alexa to proactively anticipate your needs and automate your day. I love my Alexa morning routine—when I stop my alarm, Alexa automatically turns on my bedside lamp, tells me the day’s weather, and launches the NPR Morning Edition. And with “Hunches” I have the certainty that Alexa can remind me if I leave the garage door open, for example, or if I can close the gate by itself. It’s pretty magical. More than 30% of Alexa actions in smart home control are now initiated by Alexa.
Another example is the entertainment sector. We recently launched a conversational experience called What Should I Watch? It combines Alexa and Fire TV recommendations to turn Alexa into an entertainment expert who can help you find content you might like on Echo Show and Fire TV. Another example is Thursday Night Football in the United States. We’ve introduced features that allow you to ask Alexa for the latest in-game player and team stats without interrupting the live stream of the game.
What about shopping with Alexa?
Shopping is another great place to see Alexa development. In the beginning you could add items to your shopping list. Now Alexa can use just your voice to help you place orders, answer product questions, and get shipping notifications. Also, we recently announced a new feature called Shop the Look, coming soon. Leveraging an AI breakthrough in multimodal understanding, it allows you to browse fashion, home, and beauty products right on your Echo Show by saying things like “Alexa, show me green yoga pants” to select products on the screen. People love shopping with Alexa. Fifty percent of Alexa customers have used their device to shop.
Can you tell us about your future plans for Alexa and give us some insight into what your team is working on?
Alexa is getting smarter every day, but we’re far from the final frontier. Today, you can use Alexa to get things done—from entertaining and querying information to controlling and automating your smart home, shopping, and more. But Alexa is already much more than your voice assistant. It is also an expert advisor and even a companion for some. When it informs you that you left your thermostat at 72 degrees while no one was home, it proactively advises you to save energy. Certain customers, particularly children and older customers, have a companion-like relationship with Alexa and Kids+ on Alexa and have much longer conversations that go beyond single-turn requests.
The best way to meet the ever-growing expectations of Alexa is what we call generalized intelligence, when the AI is able to multi-task learning and continuously adapt with limited human supervision. Alexa is not only one of the most fertile testing grounds for the advancement of general intelligence, but also for the development of human-like interaction skills that go beyond voice interaction.
What do you mean by that?
Communication between people, and we hope soon with Alexa, is so much more than just voice – it’s facial expressions, hand gestures, body language. That’s why we’re not only investing in further developing Alexa’s speech AI, but also in multimodal AI to improve Alexa’s ability to process various sensory signals such as visual signals, touch and ultrasound, and speech. A more natural interaction will make Alexa an even better assistant, advisor and companion. This is the hallmark of a conversational AI application like Alexa.
In addition to Conversational AI, you often speak of Ambient Intelligence. How does Ambient Intelligence affect Alexa?
Ambient Intelligence is the science that enables the disparate devices, sensors, and technology around you to work seamlessly together to support and delight you in every moment. This intelligence is there when you need it—it even anticipates your needs—but fades into the background when you don’t need it. With features like routines and hunches that help Alexa anticipate your needs and automate your day, Alexa is, at its core, what Amazon does with ambient intelligence. (See and read our Ambient Intelligence Explainer.)
What is your vision for the future?
I’m sure it’s counterintuitive to hear from someone who built their career in consumer technology and AI, but I think we should think less about technology. Instead, we should focus on experiences that make your life easier, not more complex. We want to free up hours in our customers’ lives and reduce their cognitive load so they can spend more time with the people and things that matter most to them.
In many ways, today’s Alexa is already far more capable star trek Computer that inspired me. However, as we say at Amazon, it’s still Day 1. We have an ambitious vision and I’m optimistic that we will continue to delight our customers and bring them more value.