Amazon Alexa: The smart person's guide

Amazon Alexa is the leading digital assistant on the market. Find out more about this machine-learning innovation with our Alexa smart person's guide.

First came the computer. Then the network emerged, allowing multiple devices in the same location to share information. From there the internet evolved, giving humanity the ability to store, sort, and find information with nothing but a typed request.

All signs point to the digital assistants being the next revolution in computing. iPhones have Siri, Google has Assistant, Microsoft has Cortana, and Amazon has Alexa, and all of them can get you results with nothing but a voice command.

CES 2017 gave us a clear leader in the war for digital assistant supremacy: Alexa. Integrations and partnerships with Amazon were everywhere on the showroom floor, which leaves many people wondering just what Alexa is.

TechRepublic's smart person's guide about Amazon Alexa is a quick introduction to this digital assistant, as well as a "living" guide that will be updated periodically.

SEE: Cheat sheet: Alexa for Business (TechRepublic)

Executive summary

  • What is Amazon Alexa? Alexa is Amazon's digital assistant, first launched in 2014 along with the Amazon Echo. Alexa can provide results for web searches, order products from Amazon, and act as a hub for compatible IoT devices.
  • Why does Amazon Alexa matter? Amazon Alexa is a prime example of machine learning in action and is one of the most successful applications of consumer-based use of the new advances in artificial intelligence. Systems like Alexa are an early sign of a massive shift in how we interact with machines.
  • Who does Amazon Alexa affect? Alexa primarily affects consumers who use it in an Echo or other Alexa-based device, but it affects competitors as well. Microsoft, Google, and Apple all have digital assistants that are being forced to play catch-up with Amazon.
  • When was Amazon Alexa released? Alexa has been available to the general public since 2015. Amazon recently made Alexa's API available to developers, allowing for integration in non-Amazon devices.
  • How can I start using Amazon Alexa? The best way to start using Alexa is to buy a device it runs on. There are several vendors available and features vary along with price.

SEE: IT leader's guide to the future of artificial intelligence (Tech Pro Research)

What is Amazon Alexa?

Alexa is an intelligent personal assistant that makes use of machine learning and artificial intelligence. It is designed to be always on and woken with a voice command.

Alexa can perform web searches, create calendar events, modify to-do lists and notes, order products, play music, and perform dozens of other tasks.

SEE: More TechRepublic Cheat Sheets and Smart Person's Guides

When you speak to Alexa it uses natural language learning and speech recognition to transmit your request to Amazon's servers, which is where the real work is done. Machine learning software processes the spoken request and sends a response back to Alexa, all in a matter of seconds.

An Amazon Echo unit, or any other supported device, comes with basic features out of the box. Amazon's Alexa skills store offers hundreds of additional capabilities, allowing it to play games, request an Uber, add items to your grocery shopping list, get recipes, find out if something is recyclable, or even get random cat facts.

Additional resources

Why does Amazon Alexa matter?

Digital assistants like Alexa are leading the AI and machine learning revolution currently underway in consumer tech. Humans traditionally interact with computers through typing or touch, and up until recently voice recognition was spotty at best, as anyone who tried using it on Windows XP likely knows.

The past decade has brought enormous leaps in machine learning and speech recognition, which has finally made it a viable consumer product. Amazon and Alexa have jumped to the front of the pack by opening their API for integration into third-party apps and hardware.

With Alexa sales surpassing five million units in late 2016 it's safe to say it's everywhere, and it's actively changing how we see and use the internet and computers in daily life.

Additional resources

Who does Amazon Alexa affect?

Alexa primarily affects two groups of people: Consumers and competitors. How it affects these two groups, however, is very different.

Amazon designed Alexa to be a digital assistant, an IoT hub, an entertainment device, and a web searcher. All of those possibilities in one audio-only device completely changes how the average person interacts with technology.

Consumers with sophisticated smart home setups can use Alexa to turn on lights, adjust the temperature, do laundry, turn on the oven—there are simply too many possible integrations to mention here.

SEE: How we learned to talk to computers, and how they learned to answer back (PDF download) (TechRepublic)

The sheer number of Alexa integrations also puts competitors in the hot seat: Google, Apple, and Microsoft haven't captured nearly as much of the digital assistant marketplace as Alexa has, most of which it has done in the past year.

Integrations, and the full suite of development tools for Alexa also make it a big deal for developers and third-party hardware manufacturers too. As of right now, the Alexa Voice Service can be integrated into a variety of products, making it the most fully accessible digital assistant for developers and businesses who want to add voice command features to their IoT products.

The only other digital voice assistant to function as a standalone unit is Google Home, but Google has yet to completely open the door to third parties. Actions on Google, the development platform for Google Home, is open to developers, but there isn't currently a date for opening an app store so users can download third-party Actions.

Apple has barely started to join the product battle, and Microsoft is completely out of the IoT hub game right now; if they plan on leveraging Siri and Cortana as competitors to Alexa, they need to step up. Time is running out, and Alexa is soon going to become synonymous with IoT digital assistants.

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When was Amazon Alexa released?

Alexa first launched on the Amazon Echo in November 2014. The Echo, and Alexa with it, was initially only available to invited Amazon Prime members. General release for the Echo and Alexa was June 2015.

CES 2017 brought a whole host of new Alexa integrations and third-party products, with many analysts saying Amazon was the dominant force at the show. Alexa may have launched in 2014, but 2017 is the year it's likely to be a runaway hit.

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How can I start using Amazon Alexa?

Amazon Alexa is available on the entire line of Amazon Echo products. Several third-party units were announced at CES 2017, meaning you won't necessarily need to buy an Amazon-branded unit in the future.

Don't get confused by the presence of Alexa apps in Google Play or the Apple App Store: Those are just hubs for controlling Echo units.

If you want to see what Alexa is like without buying a speaker, you can head over to Amazon's site. Logging in with your Amazon account takes you to a page where you can try voice commands out without needing to spend $50.

The best way to use Alexa is to buy an Echo or one of the third-party products that function the same way.

Additional resources

Image: Amazon

About Brandon Vigliarolo

Brandon writes about apps and software for TechRepublic. He's an award-winning feature writer who previously worked as an IT professional and served as an MP in the US Army.

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