You Can Now Summon Cortana With Alexa And Vice Versa

Microsoft and Amazon announced that Cortana and Alexa would be able to summon each other last year but we’re now able to test the functionality for ourselves. [ Continue reading this over at RedmondPie.com ]

Microsoft and Amazon announced that Cortana and Alexa would be able to summon each other last year but we're now able to test the functionality for ourselves.


[ Continue reading this over at RedmondPie.com ]

Alexa and Cortana have teamed up to create a more intelligent voice experience

Amazon and Microsoft are working together to make their voice assistants, Alexa and Cortana, even better. A new collaboration between the two begins now.

Voice assistants like Siri and Google Assistant haven’t been created equal, with each has its own strengths and weaknesses. Amazon and Microsoft seemed to have recognized this when they announced a unique partnership last year that would combine the resources of Alexa and Cortana, respectively, across the two voice platforms. Nearly a year later, that collaboration is being put on display for the public for the first time, according to CNET.... Read the rest of this post here


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How to Get Better Weather Forecasts on Amazon Echo

amazon-echo-podcasts

While the Amazon Echo has a ton of awesome skills, some of its simplest and most useful come packaged in. You probably ask Alexa about the weather almost every day, but do you ever wish it was a little better? By default, Alexa’s weather reading only gives information about your general area by ZIP code. If you’d like to hear weather for your exact location on an hour-by-hour basis, there’s an Echo skill that will help. How to Get Better Weather Forecasts on Amazon Echo For a better weather experience, you need to use the BigSky skill. It’s powered by…

Read the full article: How to Get Better Weather Forecasts on Amazon Echo

amazon-echo-podcasts

While the Amazon Echo has a ton of awesome skills, some of its simplest and most useful come packaged in. You probably ask Alexa about the weather almost every day, but do you ever wish it was a little better?

By default, Alexa’s weather reading only gives information about your general area by ZIP code. If you’d like to hear weather for your exact location on an hour-by-hour basis, there’s an Echo skill that will help.

How to Get Better Weather Forecasts on Amazon Echo

For a better weather experience, you need to use the BigSky skill. It’s powered by Dark Sky, a popular weather service on mobile. This will help you get forecasts for your address instead of an entire city.

To install it, either click Enable Skill on its desktop page, or say Alexa, enable Big Sky. Once you do so, you’ll need to link your account before it works properly.

Open the Alexa app and look for the Big Sky—Account Setup card. Tap Link Account and enter your complete address. Below this, you can choose a few options like level of detail and temperature/wind speed units. Scroll to the bottom of the page and tap Submit to complete this.

Now, you can ask Alexa to get a forecast from the skill. Try the following commands:

“Alexa, ask Big Sky…”

  • “…what’s the temperature?”
  • “…will it rain today?”
  • “…what was the weather on January 1st, 1970?”
  • “…what’s the low temperature in the next seven days?”
  • “…give me a weather fact.”

Big Sky does a lot by default, but the developer also offers a Premium version for $3 a year. This allows you to add multiple addresses and label them, so you can ask “What’s the weather at dad’s house?” Premium also lets you get forecasts for anywhere, so the skill will answer “How hot will it get in Miami today?”

If this new skill inspired you, check out how to use Alexa to be more productive.

Read the full article: How to Get Better Weather Forecasts on Amazon Echo

Security researchers found a way to hack into the Amazon Echo

Hackers at DefCon have exposed new security concerns around smart speakers. Tencent’s Wu HuiYu and Qian Wenxiang spoke at the security conference with a presentation called Breaking Smart Speakers: We are Listening to You, explaining how they hacked into an Amazon Echo speaker and turned it into a spy bug. The hack involved a modified […]

Hackers at DefCon have exposed new security concerns around smart speakers. Tencent’s Wu HuiYu and Qian Wenxiang spoke at the security conference with a presentation called Breaking Smart Speakers: We are Listening to You, explaining how they hacked into an Amazon Echo speaker and turned it into a spy bug.

The hack involved a modified Amazon Echo, which had had parts swapped out, including some that had been soldered on. The modified Echo was then used to hack into other, non-modified Echos by connecting both the hackers’ Echo and a regular Echo to the same LAN.

This allowed the hackers to turn their own, modified Echo into a listening bug, relaying audio from the other Echo speakers without those speakers indicating that they were transmitting.

This method was very difficult to execute, but represents an early step in exploiting Amazon’s increasingly popular smart speaker.

The researchers notified Amazon of the exploit before the presentation, and Amazon has already pushed a patch, according to Wired.

Still, the presentation demonstrates how one Echo, with malicious firmware, could potentially alter a group of speakers when connected to the same network, posing concerns with the idea of Echos in hotels.

Wired explained how the networking feature of the Echo allowed for the hack:

If they can then get that doctored Echo onto the same Wi-Fi network as a target device, the hackers can take advantage of a software component of Amazon’s speakers, known as Whole Home Audio Daemon, that the devices use to communicate with other Echoes in the same network. That daemon contained a vulnerability that the hackers found they could exploit via their hacked Echo to gain full control over the target speaker, including the ability to make the Echo play any sound they chose, or more worryingly, silently record and transmit audio to a faraway spy.

An Amazon spokesperson told Wired that “customers do not need to take any action as their devices have been automatically updated with security fixes,” adding that “this issue would have required a malicious actor to have physical access to a device and the ability to modify the device hardware.”

To be clear, the actor would only need physical access to their own Echo to execute the hack.

While Amazon has dismissed concerns that its voice activated devices are monitoring you, hackers at this year’s DefCon proved that they can.

Amazon launches an Alexa Auto SDK to bring its voice assistant to more cars

Amazon this morning announced the launch of a toolkit for developers that will allow them to integrate Alexa into cars’ infotainment systems. The “Alexa Auto SDK” is available now on GitHub, and includes all the core Alexa functions like streaming media, smart home controls, weather reports, and support for Alexa’s tens of thousands of third-party […]

Amazon this morning announced the launch of a toolkit for developers that will allow them to integrate Alexa into cars’ infotainment systems. The “Alexa Auto SDK” is available now on GitHub, and includes all the core Alexa functions like streaming media, smart home controls, weather reports, and support for Alexa’s tens of thousands of third-party skills. It will also add new features just for auto users, like navigation and search, Amazon says.

The source code and function libraries will be in C++ and Java, allowing the vehicles to process audio inputs and triggers, then connect with the Alexa service, and handle the Alexa interactions.

In addition, Amazon is offering a variety of sample apps, build scripts, and documentation supporting Android and QNX operating systems on ARM and x86 processor architectures.

The SDK will allow for streaming media from Amazon Music, iHeartRadio, and Audible, for the time being, and will allow customers to place calls by saying the contact’s name or phone number. These will be launched over the native calling service in the vehicle.

Plus, it can tap into a native turn-by-turn navigation system, when customers specify an address or point of interest, or if they cancel the navigation.

A local search feature lets customers search for restaurants, movie theaters, grocery stores, hotels, and other business, and navigate to the location.

This is not the first time Alexa has come to cars, by any means. Amazon has been working with car makers like Ford, BMW, SEAT, Lexus and Toyota, who have been integrating the voice assistant into select vehicles. Alexa is also available in older cars through a variety of add-on devices, like those from AnkerMuse (Speak Music)Garmin, and Logitech, for example.

With this SDK, Amazon is opening the voice assistant to other developers building for auto, who don’t yet have a relationship with Amazon.

 

 

Surprise, no one buys things via Alexa

Some numbers published in a report from The Information reveal that very few owners of Alexa-powered devices use them for shopping. Of about 50 million Alexa users, only about 100,000 reportedly bought something via voice interface more than once. It’s not exactly surprising, but it may still harm the narrative of of conversational commerce that Amazon and others are trying to advance.

Some numbers published in a report from The Information reveal that very few owners of Alexa-powered devices use them for shopping. Of about 50 million Alexa users, only about 100,000 reportedly bought something via voice interface more than once. It’s not exactly surprising, but it may still harm the narrative of conversational commerce that Amazon and others are trying to advance.

The Amazon Echo and its brethren are mostly used for the expected everyday purposes of listening to music, asking what the weather will be like tomorrow and setting timers. All of these things are obviously things that phones do as well, but there’s something to be said for having a stationary hub for the more domestic tasks.

But part of the expectation of seeding the home with these devices has been that users would also make purchases using them: “Alexa, order more Oreos,” or “Alexa, buy a pair of Bose noise-cancelling headphones.” This always seemed rather odd, as people tend to want to look at items before buying them, to check reviews, to shop around for better prices and so on. Who would just buy something by telling their Echo that they want to?

Hardly anyone, it seems. That said, it would be a bit disingenuous to pretend that conversational commerce is anything other than one point in a litany of proposed uses for the likes of Alexa, running the gamut of credibility.

As a hub for increasingly common smart home devices, Alexa is a great choice and a common one. And although groceries and impulse purchases may not be something people do via voice, an Echo is a great seller of subscriptions like Spotify and Audible, not to mention future possibilities from queries like “Alexa, call me a plumber.” And of course there’s the whole behind-the-scenes industry of ads, promotions and clever use of voice data.

Why would anyone use these devices to shop? It’s like using a laptop as a hammer. Possible, but not recommended. The other stat The Information mentions is that a million people have tried buying stuff but only 100,000 continued. It may be that this side of e-commerce is merely not “mature,” that catch-all term that could mean so many things. But it may also just be that it’s not something people want to do.

Amazon Alexa’s new ‘Answer Update’ feature will notify you when Alexa learns something new

Amazon confirmed it’s rolling out a new feature called “Answer Update” to Alexa device users over the next week, which will notify users when Alexa learns the answer to a question the assistant didn’t know when first asked. The idea is to allow people to better take advantage of Alexa’s quickly improving Knowledge Graph – […]

Amazon confirmed it’s rolling out a new feature called “Answer Update” to Alexa device users over the next week, which will notify users when Alexa learns the answer to a question the assistant didn’t know when first asked. The idea is to allow people to better take advantage of Alexa’s quickly improving Knowledge Graph – its informational database containing general knowledge facts and figures that Alexa uses to answer users’ questions.

The feature was first spotted by Voicebot, which said they were prompted to enable the feature after listening to some information a news item. Alexa then asked if the user wanted to enable “Answer Updates.”

When asked what this was, Alexa replied that she could notify the user later if she learned the answer to a question.

Typically, Alexa would have simply declined to answer the question when she didn’t know an answer, saying something like “I don’t know that, but I’m always learning,” “I can’t find the answer to the question I heard,” or “Sorry, I didn’t understand the question,” the report noted.

Amazon tells us that customers will be able to opt into the new experience, when offered, and can later choose to opt out by saying “Alexa, turn off Answer Update.”

“The Alexa service is getting smarter every day, and Answer Updates is just another way we’re continuing to expand Alexa’s Knowledge Graph,” an Amazon spokesperson said.

They also clarified the prompt would be triggered when you ask Alexa a factual question she didn’t yet know the answer to, not after listening to a news item or other information about a news item.

We were able to turn on Answer Update on our own Alexa device by saying “Alexa, turn on Answer Update.”

The assistant then responded by saying:

“Okay, if you ask me a question and I don’t know the answer, but I find out later I’ll notify you.” 

The feature is meant to offer a challenge to Google’s Knowledge Graph, which is far more developed, and gives Google Home a competitive advantage. Though Alexa has enjoyed an early lead in smart speaker market share, Google has been catching up, with some firms estimating its portion of the speaker market will grow both in the U.S. and abroad in the months ahead. Alexa needs to get better at basic Q&A and quickly.

For example, in a study reported by AdWeek last year, Google Home was found to be 6 times more likely to answer a user’s question than Amazon Alexa. The study involved asking both devices some 3,000 questions.

Answer Updates is not necessarily a fix for that problem, but it could be used as a way to reach frustrated users who expect their “smart” assistant to be a bit…well…smarter.

Amazon patents a real-time accent translator

Amazon has been granted a patent for an audio system that detects the accent of a speaker and changes it to the accent of the listener, perhaps helping eliminate communication barriers in many situations and industries. The patent doesn’t mean the company has made it, but there’s also no technical reason why it can’t do so.

Amazon has applied for a patent for an audio system that detects the accent of a speaker and changes it to the accent of the listener, perhaps helping eliminate communication barriers in many situations and industries. The patent doesn’t mean the company has made it (or necessarily that it will be granted), but there’s also no technical reason why it can’t do so.

The application, spotted by Patent Yogi, describes “techniques for accent translation.” Although couched in the requisite patent-ese, the method is quite clear. After a little translation of my own, here’s what it says:

In a two-party conversation, received audio is analyzed to see if it matches with one of a variety of stored accents. If so, the input audio from each party is outputted based on the accent of the other party.

It’s kind of a no-brainer, especially considering all the work that’s being done right now in natural language processing. Accents can be difficult to understand, especially if you haven’t spoken with an individual before, and especially without the critical cues from facial and body movements that make in-person communication so much more effective.

The most obvious place for an accent translator to be deployed is in support, where millions of phone calls take place regularly between people in distant countries. It’s the support person’s goal to communicate clearly and avoid adding to the caller’s worries with language barriers. Accent management is a major part of these industries; support personnel are often required to pass language and accent tests in order to advance in the organization they work for.

A computational accent remover would not just improve their lot, but make them far more effective. Now a person with an Arabic accent can communicate just as well with just about anyone who speaks the same language — no worries if the person on the other end has heavily Austrian, Russian, or Korean-accented English; if it’s English, it should work.

There are of course lots of other situations where this could be helpful — while traveling, for instance, or conducting international business. I’m sure you can think of a few situations of your own from the last few months or years where an accent reducer or translator would have been handy.

As for the actual execution of this system, that’s a big unknown. But Amazon has a huge amount of money and engineering talent dedicated to natural language processing, and there’s nothing about this system that strikes me as unrealistic or unattainable with existing technology.

It would be a machine learning model, of course, or rather a set of them, each trained on several hours of speech by people with a specific accent. Good thing Alexa has a worldwide presence! Amazon has an avalanche of audio samples coming in from Echoes and other devices all over the place, so many accents are likely already accounted for in their library. From there it’s just a matter of soliciting voice recordings from any group that’s underrepresented in that dataset.

Research along these lines has certainly been done already, but Amazon seems to have the jump on others on the creation of a specific system for using that knowledge in product form.

Notably the patent allows for a bit of cheating on the system’s part: it doesn’t have to scramble during the first few seconds to identify your accent, but can stack the deck a bit by checking the device’s location, phone number, previous accents encountered on that line, or of course simply allowing the speaker to pick their accent manually. Of course there will still be a variety within, say, a selected accent of “Pakistani,” but with enough data the system should be able to detect and accommodate those as well.

As always with patents there’s no guarantee this will actually take product form; it could just be research or a “defensive” patent intended to prevent rivals from creating a system like this in the meantime. But in this case I feel confident that there’s a real possibility a product will ship in the next year or so.

Amazon starts canceling free Echo Spot orders

Let’s be honest. We all knew this was too good to last, right? For a few brief moments, Amazon’s Echo Spot was listed at $0.00. The smart device quickly went out of stock, only to have its price balloon back up to $129. Those who managed to pick one up crossed their fingers in hopes […]

Let’s be honest. We all knew this was too good to last, right? For a few brief moments, Amazon’s Echo Spot was listed at $0.00. The smart device quickly went out of stock, only to have its price balloon back up to $129. Those who managed to pick one up crossed their fingers in hopes that the company would still make good.

Users (a few of our staff members included) are reporting, however, that the company has begun canceling orders placed within the window. It doesn’t appear to be a blanket cancelation at the moment, but that may well just be the time it takes to process what must have hundreds of orders, at least. Interestingly, the white version of the device (the one that was momentarily free) is still listed as being “currently unavailable” on the site.

We’re still waiting to hear back from Amazon about what, precisely, went down here. We’ve nudged them again this morning, in hopes of getting more information on the cancelation — and whether the company will, at the very, offer up something as consolation to disappointed bargain hunters.

Alexa Cast Will Allow Users To Throw Audio To Alexa-Enabled Devices Like AirPlay And Google Cast

Amazon Alexa Cast will soon allow users to throw audio to Alexa-enabled devices like Apple AirPlay and Google Cast. Here are the details. [ Continue reading this over at RedmondPie.com ]

Amazon Alexa Cast will soon allow users to throw audio to Alexa-enabled devices like Apple AirPlay and Google Cast. Here are the details.


[ Continue reading this over at RedmondPie.com ]