There was a time when turning on the lights in your home was as easy as flicking a switch. Daniel Rausch thinks Amazon can make it even easier.
Amazon’s vice president of smart home, a seven-year veteran at the online retailing giant, spoke with CNET last month about the company’s plans to make many activities in the home much simpler with the help of the Alexa voice assistant.
After years of minimal customer interest, the smart home is starting to take off with the help of smart speakers like the Amazon Echo and Google Home. These voice-operated devices should help tie together all kinds of appliances and electronics in the home — from TVs to washing machines to garage doors. In some cases, it can now be easier to turn on the lights with the help of these speakers, like when your hands are full of groceries and one of your only options is to shout a command.
Amazon’s march to making a smarter home hasn’t gone completely smoothly. Connecting all these devices is still too complicated for many customers. The company now has much more competition from Apple, Google and Samsung. And Amazon, which has a reputation for being relentlessly ambitious, has to prove it can play nice with its partners. The company already upset one of them in May when it unveiled the Echo Show device, which was suspiciously similar to startup Nucleus’ Alexa-powered intercom.
Rausch discussed Amazon’s work to build up privacy, the challenges his team faces and the company’s plans to expand Alexa into more places.
“The world is still learning about the power of voice,” he said, “and where it can be the great simplifier that it is.”
The following is an edited transcript of our chat:
Q: What is Amazon hoping to do with Alexa in the smart home?
Rausch: We want to bring the same simplicity we afford in control today to things like discovering what products work with Alexa, purchasing those products, setting up those products and then using those products. So I think you’ll see us work hard on that. The world of setup is still very heterogenous. There are a multitude of apps and ways of connecting. We’ve done some things to cut through that.
Do you see a world where you just screw in the light bulb, Alexa immediately recognizes it and it’s done?
Rausch: We want to extend that same simplicity exactly as you said it. It should be as simple for customers as picking the product that they would otherwise love. A door lock that aesthetically matches the look of their home, a light bulb that they like. And it just works.
As you start to grow into these other areas, does Amazon start having to create more devices itself? What does that do to the Alexa ecosystem if Amazon is seen as a competitor?
Rausch: We know that we are not going to build everything for the home. There is an Ecobee thermostat that offers a great Alexa experience, and we do not build that hardware at all. The same thing is true on the software side with the skills kit, where we knew we weren’t going to develop every application for Alexa. We wouldn’t get to ordering a pizza as quickly as someone that delivers pizzas every day would. I think we’ll always look for places where we think we can do something differentiated and special for customers. But we know that the smart home of the future includes all the product diversity and more that customers see today.
With smart speakers, Amazon has essentially created a product category, which is rare. Where did the idea for the Echo come from?
Rausch: The way that this great new category got going was one insightful idea about the “Star Trek” computer. The idea was that you would have ambient, continuous access to computing in a way that characters in “Star Trek” do. That was the seedling. Focusing on everything that customers would be able to do in the world of the future that we thought we could bring to the present was the way that the idea got started.
How is Amazon trying to make sure that it stays ahead?
Rausch: There certainly increasingly looks like an endless list of things that customers will use voice to do. And I think we certainly, because we see that world of possibilities, are applying ourselves intensely to it. We know that Alexa today can do thousands of things, and we want that to be millions of things.
What about increased competition from other big tech companies?
Rausch: I think we’re mostly just focused frankly on our customers. We moved right away to what will customers be able to do with that capability versus thinking about what our competitors are doing or the state of affairs with respect to who has what technology assets.
What are some of the tech challenges Alexa faces?
Rausch: We certainly see a succession of very hard technical problems to solve. We don’t speak like computers. We speak like humans. So natural language is difficult. There’s a lot of complexity in understanding what a customer intends. And then once you understand what a customer intends, you have to be able to do something about it.
On privacy, what can you tell customers about how comfortable they should feel as Alexa continues to expand and can do more things?
Rausch: We do get the question around, “Is Alexa always listening?” The answer is no. Alexa is always ready to respond. There are many highly considered decisions that we made in building that experience so customers can feel confident they understand what’s happening. So, one, Alexa’s always ready to respond to her name, Two, we built an experience where there’s a indication that Alexa is now listening. It’s showing customers when listening has started and when it has stopped. The mute button electronically disconnects the microphone. Lastly, and I think importantly for customers, they can see everything that Alexa has heard. And you can delete those utterances one at a time or you can delete them all. That’s a whole set of constructs that we’ve built around that experience to build customer trust.
Where do you see Alexa ten years from now?
Rausch: Alexa will become a fabric in the home. In my home today, it’s in most places but it’s not in every single nook and cranny. I think what customers really want is that same degree of simplicity to be afforded to them everywhere they are in their homes. I think that the other side of that equation is extending control to many more products. I think that as your refrigerator becomes connected in your home, your dishwasher, your garage door, your front door, your lights, you’ll see us working hard for customers to expand that simplicity of control to all of those different devices.
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