Amazon wants voice assistants to talk to each other

For the company, voice interoperability is yet another way to grow ambient computing into a real business.

Sonos speaker with Alexa

It's interoperability time.

Photo illustration: Sonos; Protocol

Amazon has long championed the idea of running multiple voice assistants on the same device. Now, it wants to help those assistants work together. To that end, Amazon is rolling out what it’s calling Universal Device Commands over the next year, the company announced at its Alexa Live developer event on Wednesday. The new feature will make it possible to use core smart speaker functionality across multiple assistants.

“Customers win when they have choice,” said Alexa Voice Service VP Aaron Rubenson. For Amazon, providing this level of choice also means that Alexa is always part of the picture, which helps the company with its quest to turn ambient computing into a real business, complete with a large developer community tapping into multiple ways to monetize Alexa skills.

A common language for voice assistants

Amazon first threw its weight behind multi-assistant support in 2019, when it announced the Voice Interoperability Initiative with 35 member companies. That industry group has since grown to include more than 90 members, and multiple companies have launched devices capable of running more than one voice assistant concurrently.

At Alexa Live, Amazon announced that Alexa would be coming to select Skullcandy headphones soon. “We will have Alexa and their own assistant, called Hey Skullcandy, working simultaneously on these devices,” Rubenson said. Other companies with similar setups include Sonos, which launched its own voice assistant last month.

Now, Amazon wants to help make it easier to actually use multi-assistant devices with the implementation of Universal Device Commands. This will unlock core functionality like controlling a speaker’s volume, pausing playback and perhaps stopping an alarm or timer across multiple assistants.

“These are things that we believe that any assistant that’s operating on a device should be able to handle, regardless of where something may have been initiated,” Rubenson said. “You can imagine a customer has a Sonos device, and they start a music stream with the Sonos Voice Assistant,” he said. “If somebody else comes into the room an hour later and says ‘Alexa, stop,’ you would like the music to stop.”

At the same time, Amazon wants to meet people’s expectations of privacy, and not make them suspicious about Alexa chiming in on an interaction that started with a different assistant. “When audio is streaming, the Universal Device Command framework will make it known to any assistant that there is audio playing,” Rubenson said. “But other than the assistant that started it, the other assistant won't know what is playing, or which app it's playing in.”

The economics of voice interoperability

Not every company is a supporter of voice interoperability. Google in particular has long resisted the idea of letting its own Google Assistant run next to another company’s voice assistant. As a result, Sonos owners, for instance, have to choose whether they want to enable Sonos Voice Control or the Google Assistant on a speaker.

Amazon, on the other hand, is betting it can further grow its Alexa business by embracing interoperability. Key to that is its work with third-party Alexa skills developers; Rubenson told Protocol that 20% of the interactions with Alexa last year were skills-based. “Collectively, that's tens of billions of interactions with Alexa skills,” he said.

An increasing amount of those interactions are being monetized in one way or another, including through paid skills and in-skill purchases. To further grow this business, Amazon announced Wednesday that smaller Alexa developers will be able to get up to a 90% revenue share. The company is also introducing paid placements of skills in search results, mirroring the way mobile app stores are monetized.

Amazon hasn’t said how much revenue the company is generating with Alexa skills, but it’s clearly a growing business. “We have skill developers making seven figures,” Rubenson said. And by making Alexa a core part of ambient computing, even alongside other assistants, Amazon is positioning itself to further grow that business across a wide range of devices, including not only smart speakers, but also headphones, TVs, appliances and even cars.

“Alexa implementations have contributed to literally billions of dollars of consumer electronic sales since we introduced that technology a few years ago,” Rubenson said.


Judge Zia Faruqui is trying to teach you crypto, one ‘SNL’ reference at a time

His decisions on major cryptocurrency cases have quoted "The Big Lebowski," "SNL," and "Dr. Strangelove." That’s because he wants you — yes, you — to read them.

The ways Zia Faruqui (right) has weighed on cases that have come before him can give lawyers clues as to what legal frameworks will pass muster.

Photo: Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post via Getty Images

“Cryptocurrency and related software analytics tools are ‘The wave of the future, Dude. One hundred percent electronic.’”

That’s not a quote from "The Big Lebowski" — at least, not directly. It’s a quote from a Washington, D.C., district court memorandum opinion on the role cryptocurrency analytics tools can play in government investigations. The author is Magistrate Judge Zia Faruqui.

Keep ReadingShow less
Veronica Irwin

Veronica Irwin (@vronirwin) is a San Francisco-based reporter at Protocol covering fintech. Previously she was at the San Francisco Examiner, covering tech from a hyper-local angle. Before that, her byline was featured in SF Weekly, The Nation, Techworker, Ms. Magazine and The Frisc.

The financial technology transformation is driving competition, creating consumer choice, and shaping the future of finance. Hear from seven fintech leaders who are reshaping the future of finance, and join the inaugural Financial Technology Association Fintech Summit to learn more.

Keep ReadingShow less
The Financial Technology Association (FTA) represents industry leaders shaping the future of finance. We champion the power of technology-centered financial services and advocate for the modernization of financial regulation to support inclusion and responsible innovation.

AWS CEO: The cloud isn’t just about technology

As AWS preps for its annual re:Invent conference, Adam Selipsky talks product strategy, support for hybrid environments, and the value of the cloud in uncertain economic times.

Photo: Noah Berger/Getty Images for Amazon Web Services

AWS is gearing up for re:Invent, its annual cloud computing conference where announcements this year are expected to focus on its end-to-end data strategy and delivering new industry-specific services.

It will be the second re:Invent with CEO Adam Selipsky as leader of the industry’s largest cloud provider after his return last year to AWS from data visualization company Tableau Software.

Keep ReadingShow less
Donna Goodison

Donna Goodison (@dgoodison) is Protocol's senior reporter focusing on enterprise infrastructure technology, from the 'Big 3' cloud computing providers to data centers. She previously covered the public cloud at CRN after 15 years as a business reporter for the Boston Herald. Based in Massachusetts, she also has worked as a Boston Globe freelancer, business reporter at the Boston Business Journal and real estate reporter at Banker & Tradesman after toiling at weekly newspapers.

Image: Protocol

We launched Protocol in February 2020 to cover the evolving power center of tech. It is with deep sadness that just under three years later, we are winding down the publication.

As of today, we will not publish any more stories. All of our newsletters, apart from our flagship, Source Code, will no longer be sent. Source Code will be published and sent for the next few weeks, but it will also close down in December.

Keep ReadingShow less
Bennett Richardson

Bennett Richardson ( @bennettrich) is the president of Protocol. Prior to joining Protocol in 2019, Bennett was executive director of global strategic partnerships at POLITICO, where he led strategic growth efforts including POLITICO's European expansion in Brussels and POLITICO's creative agency POLITICO Focus during his six years with the company. Prior to POLITICO, Bennett was co-founder and CMO of Hinge, the mobile dating company recently acquired by Match Group. Bennett began his career in digital and social brand marketing working with major brands across tech, energy, and health care at leading marketing and communications agencies including Edelman and GMMB. Bennett is originally from Portland, Maine, and received his bachelor's degree from Colgate University.


Why large enterprises struggle to find suitable platforms for MLops

As companies expand their use of AI beyond running just a few machine learning models, and as larger enterprises go from deploying hundreds of models to thousands and even millions of models, ML practitioners say that they have yet to find what they need from prepackaged MLops systems.

As companies expand their use of AI beyond running just a few machine learning models, ML practitioners say that they have yet to find what they need from prepackaged MLops systems.

Photo: artpartner-images via Getty Images

On any given day, Lily AI runs hundreds of machine learning models using computer vision and natural language processing that are customized for its retail and ecommerce clients to make website product recommendations, forecast demand, and plan merchandising. But this spring when the company was in the market for a machine learning operations platform to manage its expanding model roster, it wasn’t easy to find a suitable off-the-shelf system that could handle such a large number of models in deployment while also meeting other criteria.

Some MLops platforms are not well-suited for maintaining even more than 10 machine learning models when it comes to keeping track of data, navigating their user interfaces, or reporting capabilities, Matthew Nokleby, machine learning manager for Lily AI’s product intelligence team, told Protocol earlier this year. “The duct tape starts to show,” he said.

Keep ReadingShow less
Kate Kaye

Kate Kaye is an award-winning multimedia reporter digging deep and telling print, digital and audio stories. She covers AI and data for Protocol. Her reporting on AI and tech ethics issues has been published in OneZero, Fast Company, MIT Technology Review, CityLab, Ad Age and Digiday and heard on NPR. Kate is the creator of RedTailMedia.org and is the author of "Campaign '08: A Turning Point for Digital Media," a book about how the 2008 presidential campaigns used digital media and data.

Latest Stories