How does Alexa work

Amazon Alexa: functions, voice commands, skills and smart home connection

[This article is updated regularly. Last update on December 21, 2018]

Alexa started in Germany in autumn 2016 on Amazon's first smart loudspeaker, the Echo. The digital voice assistant plays music from various streaming providers on request, reads the latest news and the current weather report and enables voice control of compatible smart home components. In addition to an active Internet connection, an Amazon account is required to use Alexa.

Amazon Alexa: This is how the voice assistant works

All Alexa devices have microphones to receive voice commands. By default, most devices listen permanently to the set wakeword, such as "Alexa", "Computer" or "Echo". But there are also smart Alexa speakers from third-party providers without "hands-free mode" - they only listen into the room at the push of a button. If the devices recognize the wakeword or if the corresponding button for voice control is pressed, the device not only carries out the instruction or answers the spoken question - it sends the voice command to the Amazon cloud for evaluation and saves it there.

Alexa’s voice recognition constantly learns through interaction with the user and gradually recognizes their voice better and better. Alexa should soon have more personality herself and answer follow-up questions. So that people with speech impairments can also communicate with the digital assistant, the hobbyist Abhishek Singh is working on being able to operate Alexa via sign language and webcam. The project is based on the TensorFlow machine learning platform.

Manage voice commands in the Alexa app

In the Alexa app, you can listen to the audio snippets afterwards and see in text form how Alexa has interpreted them. Incorrect detections can be reported and the voice data can be individually deleted in the Alexa app in the user profile via Settings / Alexa devices / history.

Most devices with Alexa can be "closed your ears" at the push of a button: If you mute the microphones, the voice recognition is severely deactivated according to Amazon and no longer listens permanently to the wakeword. However, this is unlikely to allay the concerns of privacy advocates, who are generally skeptical of cloud-based assistants. With the purchase you have to be clear: The knowledge that Alexa learns about its users ends up with the manufacturer, is stored on US servers and at least partially processed further.

Shopping by voice command

Amazon has also placed Alexa as an interface in its shopping world: Prime customers can purchase selected Prime products by voice command, track orders and cancel them. Items that have already been purchased in the past and are not Prime products can be re-purchased via Alexa. Shopping by voice command only works if you have activated 1-click orders in the account settings.

The verbally concluded contracts only become effective as soon as you receive a confirmation email or the goods have been sent. In the Alexa app, voice purchases can either be protected with a code or turned off entirely. This is particularly useful in households with several people, for example in shared apartments or families with small children. Reports of accidental and unexpected orders, for example for dollhouses and biscuits, haunt the news again and again and should not have sparked any storms of enthusiasm among roommates and parents.

Shopping with Alexa is not yet really popular - in 2018, only two percent of Alexa owners shopped by voice. And of these two percent, only ten percent bought again by voice command.

Alexa Skills: activate and deactivate

Alexa already knows a lot by nature - for example, she has mastered the basic arithmetic operations, explains the endoplasmic reticulum when asked, spells tricky words, tells jokes, knows Douglas Adams and 42 and how Yoda can speak them. If that's not enough for you, you can expand the knowledge of Amazon's voice assistant with new functions, so-called skills. These are capabilities programmed by third-party providers that can be activated either by calling, in the Alexa app or in the browser, for example using "Alexa, activate Wiki Germany." In the following, a language version of the Wikipedia online lexicon is activated and started directly.

If you no longer need the skill, you can delete it with "Alexa, deactivate Wikipedia" from the memory of the digital voice assistant. Incidentally, you don't save storage space in this way - all skills are in the cloud and are not installed locally. The selection ranges from skills for smart home control of components from Ikea, Sonos, Bose & Co. through dictionaries to the local waste calendar, games and relaxing nature sounds - thousands of different skills are now available.

Some skills, for example from news and weather portals, are part of the "daily summary", including heise online news. The command "Alexa, activate heise online" is sufficient for this and the news from Nerdistan ends up in Alexa's newsfeed, which is started with "Alexa, what's my daily summary".

Competition: The start of Google Home and Apple's Homepod

That Amazon had hit a nerve with the combination of Alexa and Echo became clear at the latest after the announcement of the competition that they wanted to get involved in the topic of smart speakers. For example, Google entered the German market in August 2017 with its Google Home Speaker, on which the Google Assistant takes commands and requests.