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Amazon’s A.I. voice project gets help from Facebook, Dolby, and Garmin

September 9, 2020, 3:13 PM UTC

Amazon’s quest to make digital voice assistants like its own Alexa work with others is getting some help from Facebook, Garmin, Dolby, and Chinese tech giant Xiaomi.

The online retail giant announced on Wednesday that several additional companies have joined its voice-interoperability initiative (VII), bringing the total number to 77 members, up from around 30 when it debuted last year. Those participants include Salesforce, Microsoft, and Spotify. 

Amazon pitched its digital voice project as a way for companies to ensure that their voice-activated digital assistants understand each other when used on a single device. For instance, Facebook’s Portal videoconferencing device can be used with Amazon’s Alexa digital assistant so that people can do tasks like setting the timer of their Internet-connected coffee machine by asking Alexa via their Portal device.

In theory, people would be able to do more advanced tasks around the house if they could use multiple voice assistants on their devices, said Aaron Rubenson, a vice president for Alexa. For example, someone could ask their Internet-connected set-top box to play a song from their web-connected speaker. While the set-top box may have its own voice assistant that can turn on a television via a command, that assistant may otherwise be unable to play a song from a web-connected speaker.

Additionally, Amazon released best practices for others to use for creating products that use multiple voice assistants. The guide spells out how to design so-called wake words that are used to activate voice assistants. This is helpful if a web-connected microwave uses multiple voice assistants that each require their own wake word to activate them. 

However, more digital assistants talking to each other could increase the risk of users unintentionally causing one of them to accidentally activate and eavesdrop on conversations. For instance, researchers have shown that certain common phrases can activate voice assistants like Alexa, Google Assistant, and Apple’s Siri, creating potential privacy problems. 

“We and the others in the industry have worked quite hard to ensure that the wake word technology is accurate,” Rubenson said. Amazon “has seen a 50% decrease in unintended wakes over the last year,” he said, without revealing any absolute numbers.

Although tech companies bet that voice technologies will become the next big way people interact, it’s still “early” days for the industry in terms of adoption, Rubenson said. 

One of the goals of Amazon’s voice-interoperability initiative is to popularize voice technology to both consumers and companies, and to improve “customer satisfaction,” Rubenson said. People may be hesitant to use voice assistants if the assistants routinely stumble when asked to do tasks.

Still, companies like Apple and Google that operate popular digital voice assistants have yet to join Amazon’s initiative. Those companies may view Alexa as a competitor to their own and may therefore be hesitant to partner with Amazon.

“Of course we would love to have participation from all companies that have voice assistants,” Rubenson said.