Amazon Alexa is Not Artificial Intelligence

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Posted: September 6, 2017 | Categories: Artificial Intelligence

I’ve been reading a lot of articles lately about digital assistants like the Amazon Echo and Google Home. In my reading, I’m seeing more and more writers categorize these simple devices as Artificial Intelligence (AI). While I’m not an expert in the field, merely an interested party, this makes no sense at all.

Amazon Alexa isn’t AI; it's a system that parses a voice request and decides what to do with the request based on the specific code that's been written for it to respond to the specific query, or queries like it. Alexa can only do what it's coded to do, and nothing else. You can prove this pretty quickly by asking it a question that requires intelligence (the I in AI) to answer and you’ll quickly get an “I don’t know what to do with that” response.

Now, Amazon has done a lot of innovation around delivering a system that gets better over time at being able to understand what you’re asking for, but that’s not intelligence, that’s better Natural Language Processing (NLP). The better it gets at understanding your query, the better the Alexa development team can get at writing code that deals with that particular type of request.

As I’ve written here before, Alexa is code-bound - it can only do what it's coded to do. As a developer, I can define some phrases I’m interested in dealing with, then write some code to have Alexa execute whenever it hears any one of those phrases uttered by an Echo user. If someone (a developer) hasn’t defined the phrases AND written the code to respond to them, then Alexa can’t do anything with it.

That’s not Intelligence.

Now, the folks at Amazon have coded fallbacks, right? But they’re still hand crafted code to deal with a specific situation. If you ask Alexa to do something it doesn’t know what to do, it does a quick Internet search on the phrase it heard you say, and posts the search results to the Alexa App.

Again, that’s not Artificial intelligence.

Try to have a conversation with it, and you’ll fail miserably. Some developer has coded cheeky responses to specific types of general purpose questions (like “How are you?”) but those are still hard-coded responses to specific queries. Alexa knows how to tell me a Star Trek joke, only because someone coded it to do so - not because it is intelligent. Correct me if I’m wrong, but Its not hearing “Joke” and “Star Trek” then figuring out if the jokes it has fit the bill, I imagine some developer built a database of Star Trek jokes, or at least gave Alexa a list of sites where it can go to find Star Trek jokes. That’s not intelligence.

What finally drove me to write this post was two articles in this month’s MIT Technology Review magazine (Volume 120 | no. 5), one is called Alexa, Understand Me and the other Growing Up with Alexa. The first article repeatedly glorifies Alexa as an AI, explaining all sorts of ways that the Alexa team uses data to fine tune its NLP and explaining how that makes it a better AI. Its a very interesting article about how big of a challenge it is to make Alexa seem smart, but nothing about what they’re doing is AI. The second article deals with Alexa as what it is: a personal digital assistant. The difference between the two articles and how they portray Alexa as two completely different things makes me believe that the no editor at the magazine read both articles. If they had, they probably wouldn’t have published both of them as they’re contradictory in their definition about what they’re writing about.

A quick Google search on “Intelligence” came up with this definition:

“the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills.”

Alexa does this - it acquires skills and applies them, but not through its own actions. Developers define skills and publish them to the Alexa service. Alexa’s NLP capabilities connect what’s asked with the available skills. That’s not intelligence, that’s coding. That’s a piece of software responding to the logic in its code.

Artificial Intelligence is about intelligence. For Alexa to be AI, it would need to be able to do something it wasn’t coded to do. That’s intelligence. Figuring something out. When Alexa can figure out how to do something it doesn’t know how to do using the things it does know how to do as building blocks, then you can make the argument that its intelligent. When it can make leaps of understanding, then its intelligent. As long as it can only do what it has been coded to do, then it is an appliance and nothing more.

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