When Amazon launched Alexa — its voice-activated virtual assistant — in 2014, it was met with scepticism. Why did an ecommerce company think it could create smart home technology?
It didn’t help that the first Amazon Echo device, shaped like a can of Pringle snacks, followed the ill-fated Fire Phone: Amazon’s pitiful attempt at competing with Apple’s iPhone. That was a project that even Amazon’s biggest fans admit was a misjudgement by its founder, Jeff Bezos.
Eight years on, however, the company has sold hundreds of millions of Echo devices, making it the market leader in smart home assistants, ahead of such formidable rivals as Google and Apple.
The man in charge of Alexa’s development — Dave Limp, Amazon’s head of devices and services (above, left) — sees this as just a first step towards a new platform known as “ambient computing”: technology that, unlike a smartphone, can operate almost invisibly without physical input.
His vision differs greatly from that of tech peers who believe the virtual reality “metaverse” will become the next big computing realm — none more so than Mark Zuckerberg, who renamed Facebook to Meta. Can they both be right?
The FT’s Dave Lee (above, right) met Limp at Amazon’s Seattle headquarters to discuss ambient computing and its potential. They were joined in the room by Astro — a home robot, currently available only to a few select invitees, and the most outlandish product Amazon has yet produced.
Dave Lee: How would you define ‘ambient computing’?
Dave Limp: It’s another user paradigm for how people interact with technology. We’re all very familiar with the ones that we’ve had for a long time. You know, typing on a QWERTY keyboard, with your laptop, or, more recently, a smartphone.
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Ambient computing is another paradigm to interface with technology, but it’s different in a number of ways. It’s embodied by the fact that when you’re around it, you shouldn’t have to learn it. There shouldn’t have to be a manual, there shouldn’t have to be teaching. And that’s true for young and old.
And so, when you walk into a room where an Echo is, and you say, ‘turn on the lights’, it should feel natural, there shouldn’t be a manual on how you turn on the lights or how you play music.
It also has the characteristic that, when it’s not in use, it disappears. And that has the very pleasant side effect of taking your head up out of your phone. And all too often, I walk into my home, and my kids are scattered around the home, and they have headphones in, and their heads are in maybe one or two devices at the same time.
Dave Lee: Everyone’s there, but nobody’s there.
Dave Limp: Yeah, exactly. And maybe that’s a commentary on my parenting. But the fact of the matter is: ambient computing allows you to pick up your head and enjoy moments as a family. So that’s kind of the broad definition.
For us, for example, it takes the form of having Echoes around your house. So, when you want to play music, instead of putting those earphones in, you’re actually saying “play music’ and enjoying it together. When you’re watching TV, you can say ‘tune to ESPN’, and all watch the sporting event together and be one as a family. And then when it disappears, it goes away, it fades into the background and the technology is not overwhelming.
Dave Lee: Do you think it will primarily be voice-controlled? Are there other ways to interact with ambient computing, beyond voice?
Dave Limp: In a funny way, we’re working very hard to speak to Alexa less. I remember seeing people’s faces and eyes light up when they saw Echo for the first time. They’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is almost like magic’. But it gets even more magical when Alexa is proactive on your behalf.
We do hundreds of millions of smart home actions every month. But more than a quarter of them are done on behalf of the user without them doing anything, without them ever saying ‘turn on the lights’ or ‘open the door’, ‘set the thermostat’ . . . it happens automatically. When that starts happening, that’s when I think it’s most magical.
It’s like the best assistant you’ve ever had: when you’re delayed at an airport, maybe they rebook you . . . [and] you’re like ‘Oh, the flight was late but now I’m on another flight . . . that’s so magical!’
Dave Lee: Alexa can’t do that for you yet.
Dave Limp: . . . No, not quite, but certain things in your home it does do proactively. If you turn off your lights 30 days in a row and then, [on] the 31st day, you forgot to turn off your porch lights . . . Alexa will figure that out. We call it ‘hunches’. Alexa will have a hunch, and we’ll turn [the lights] off on your behalf. And this is gonna get richer over time as the artificial intelligence gets more and more intelligent.
Dave Lee: Can you tell me more about the potential for ambient computing outside of home?
Dave Limp: I think anywhere where either you want your hands free [or] you don’t want to be distracted, ambient computing has a place. That’ll happen in the workplace for certain aspects, but I think the automobile is a perfect example.
Dave Lee: One of the few products that Amazon quite openly describes as a failure is the Fire Phone. I’ve heard you talk about this, I’ve heard Jeff Bezos talking about this. Does Amazon see ambient computing as: ‘This is the next platform and, if we missed smartphones, we’re sure we’re not going to miss this’?
Dave Limp: I don’t think it was as conscious as that. I think what we’re trying to do, as an organisation, is build devices that are deeply coupled to services. And we did that well before you started seeing the rest of the industry start thinking about that. Start with Kindle [the ebook reader]. You had a beautiful device that was deeply coupled to a bookstore . . .
But if you do take a lot of risks, and I think we do at Amazon, you are going to have some of those failures. And so it wasn’t that, all of a sudden, we had this phone that didn’t work, and therefore we have to go and do something else and be successful there. We were working on both of them in parallel.
I had a number of people outside my door saying, “don’t ship the phone, it’s never gonna work”. But I also had the same number of people outside my door saying, “don’t ship this Pringles can with microphones on it, because that’s not going to work, it’s crazy”.
And yet . . . we’ve sold hundreds of millions of devices that have Alexa in it. The other one wasn’t a success. But taking that risk, I would do it all over. I’ll take five Fire Phone failures, if I can get one Alexa. The math is that simple.
Dave Lee: Let’s talk about the idea of the next computing platform. You have Mark Zuckerberg at what was Facebook, now Meta, reorienting the company to deal with the metaverse. To me, that says more technology: Put this virtual reality headset on my face, I’m going somewhere in the metaverse. Ambient computing seems the opposite of that in a quite fundamental way. What do you make of the differences between those two worlds?
Dave Limp: I think it starts with what is your definition of the metaverse, [as] it means different things to different people. If I was talking to my kids, they might think of it as Minecraft and Roblox. Somebody else might think of a VR experience, others might think of an [augmented reality] experience.
But the general description, I think, is this idea of connecting people that are in disparate places, sometimes virtually, sometimes trying to mimic the real world.
I do think that a lot of what we’re trying to do is make the real world here, and in the present, more accessible to people. There’s a lot of things about ambient computing that are just all around you. I think there will be uses for things that we are inventing in our world of ambient computing that will be applicable in many of those scenarios named ‘metaverse’, [and] there will be very real reasons to have a voice assistant in the metaverse.
Dave Lee: But do you think it’s as big an opportunity as, perhaps, Mark Zuckerberg sees it?
Dave Limp: I haven’t talked to Mark about how big he thinks it is. I do think it has the opportunity to advance mobile phones if the industry can get it right. But the technology to do that is not here today, it takes the form of VR glasses.
Dave Lee: One question that always overhangs Alexa is: how is Amazon going to make money from it specifically? You can shop with Alexa, you can say ‘add some eggs to my shopping list’. But it doesn’t seem like people are doing that in any meaningful number, yet.
Dave Limp: No disrespect, but the data are just wrong. A huge number of people are using it for shopping. About half to give you a sense.
Dave Lee: Half of the people who have an Alexa have used it to buy something?
Dave Limp: Yes, or use some shopping kind of functionality. That might be adding to lists, it might be reordering something, a lot of different things. That’s one of our fastest-growing use cases. And, obviously, if that happens, it helps Amazon.
But I’d also point to a lot of other things that are happening on Alexa that help to monetise [it] — sometimes for us, sometimes for developers. A huge number of people on Alexa are using [music streaming service] Spotify. Spotify has an ad-supported version, and has a subscription-supported version. And that’s great. That’s awesome. And we’re very supportive of that. We also have a music service, and a lot of people are using Prime music, too.
Are we done figuring out ways to monetise Alexa? No, I think, for developers and us, we’ll figure out more ways as we continue on this journey. But I feel like the progress is substantial over the last couple of years.
Dave Lee: I was reading about your deal with Teladoc [to offer calls with doctors over Alexa, for a fee]. It’s an interesting use case.
Dave Limp: I think there are many use cases that are natural as we think about what the world looks like, coming out of the pandemic . . . We’re going to work from home more, but we’ve also redefined how we communicate with people, especially loved ones, and that kind of thing.
The idea that we would have virtual healthcare always seemed like this north star that was just slightly out of reach, you couldn’t get there. But the pandemic has fast-forwarded that . . . Being able to have a simple to use technology . . . [you] just call a doctor from an Echo Show or somebody else’s device . . . seems great.
Another example is that we all want to get closer to our loved ones. But it’s been harder than ever, because we haven’t been able to travel . . . In my case, my dad, he’s ageing a bit. He’s still spry, but nevertheless, I do care about him a lot. And so we have this program called Alexa Together. The idea is that I can interlink my Alexa experience with his, with his permission, obviously. I can set it up so I can know he was active that day.
Alexa will sense his presence, that he was up and about, and that is so comforting to get that message in my inbox in the morning. That’s a good representation of ambient computing: he has to do nothing . . . Just that little ‘warm and fuzzy’, to know that he’s up and about, is worth millions.
Dave Lee: Let’s talk about Astro [the robot]. I watched the launch. Fascinated by it. I think one review said it was like R2-D2, and another one said Wall-E, the Pixar robot . . . What’s the sales pitch for Astro?
Dave Limp: The sales pitch . . . I don’t know if I can give a sales pitch. I’ve had it for a couple of years, various forms of it. And it’s one of these devices that, in a strange way, become part of your family. If I was to point [to] a spectrum and, on one side of that spectrum, was just pure technology, utility, your personal computer and, at the other end, I would put a pet, a cat or a dog, [then] Astro’s closer to the pet than it is to the personal computer.
I know that sounds like I might be overpromising in some way. But it is very strange how important it has become as part of our family. And, by the way, when we give it to other people — it’s in a small number of homes — the feedback from them is similar.
Dave Lee: Can you say roughly how many?
Dave Limp: . . . We haven’t said, but it’s tiny. It’s not a big number.
Dave Lee: Less than one hundred?
Dave Limp: No, it’s more than that. We’re not anywhere close to a million. We’re doing that to learn and get good feedback and get the product better. Once . . . it’s in your home, there is a lot of utility to it.
Some people . . . have Ring and Blink [smart home camera systems]. I’m not one of those people. I have [only] one camera inside, it’s pointed to my liquor cabinet, to make sure my teenagers . . .
It’s much better than a lock, I just put a camera on my liquor cabinet, and call Liquor Cabinet Cam. But, beyond that, I didn’t want cameras in every room in my house. But when I’m away on holiday, I do really like to be able to check in on the house.
Now, you have this thing that’s on wheels with cameras, and it can roll around. I can steer — which is fun — but it can steer itself and it goes on patrol. And, if it detects any anomalies, it just sends me a notification. And that’s really interesting and good peace of mind.
[Astro even] starts understanding where you’re hanging out in the room, and it will hang out like a dog, you know, in the right spots.
And I had a delightful moment, as we were trimming the Christmas tree this holiday: it just brought the Christmas music right to us. Astro was there and it played music. It’s just delightful because you didn’t have to worry about having an Echo right there, or a Bluetooth speaker, or putting headphones on . . . it was this ambient experience.
Dave Lee: But does it have the killer app yet? I’m not hearing many practical applications. Security is interesting, but does that need to be a home robot . . . particularly one that costs $1,000?
Dave Limp: I hesitate to use ‘killer app’ because I think that’s a paradigm that has long since gone. What makes utility for something is a combination of a lot of things. People gave me the same question when we first shipped Echo: what’s the killer app?
Dave Lee: . . . People are still asking that.
Dave Limp: I understand, but I can tell you, people interact with Alexa on Echoes billions of times a week. Billions. If I showed you a curve of what they’re doing, music is great. It’s popular. But it’s not one thing, it’s a million things and it changes throughout the day. It could be your kid asking a homework question, it’s kitchen timers, it’s your alarm clock.
It’s the combination of all those things that brings utility. I would argue the same thing is true of smartphones . . . In the beginning, your phone was about voice calls. I don’t remember the last time I made a voice call. It evolves, and I think the same thing is going to be true of Astro. The thing I am very sure of — and we could argue about the timeframe, is it five years, 10 years, 15 years away? — [is that] robots will be in people’s homes. I’m sure of that.
Dave Lee: Everybody’s home?
Dave Limp: Everybody’s home. Everybody’s going to have multiple versions of robots over time, because there’s just so many tasks and things that you don’t want to do, or that you’re not there to do. Security is a great example of that.
Dave Lee: . . . Most people’s perfect home robot is the robot that mops the floor, takes out the bins . . . does chores in a house that Astro can’t do at the moment. [The] technology . . . is very far away.
Dave Limp: Well, I have a robotic vacuum. I’d argue a dishwasher is a very simple form of a robot, you know, because it takes a mundane task nobody wanted to do and automates it.
I don’t think it’s going to be one robot that’s going to solve all those problems . . . I wouldn’t also underestimate the value of the personality and the companionship of a robot. There will be utilitarian robots, just as we just described, one that mops your floor, one that does your dishes, maybe takes out your trash, that would be a good one too. But there are also going to be robots that are for companionship, that have personality, and those also offer value.
Dave Lee: Astro is . . . another leap of faith, privacy-wise. It’s more Amazon in the home. Is that a big ask of consumers, to say, ‘put even more of us into your house’?
Dave Limp: I would argue that we have thought about privacy at the foundational level. Astro is a great embodiment of that. We over-indexed on the amount of compute inside of that robot, so that the vast majority of things that are happening on the robot are happening locally, they never go to the cloud.
And the vast majority of things are also opt in. If you don’t want it to recognise you, you don’t have to opt in to that. We also put privacy protection in the hardware. If you mute it . . . all the visible light cameras, basically electrically turn off.
Are we done inventing in privacy, no — we’ll continue to do it. But I feel more secure about having an Astro in my home than I do having somebody else’s smartphone in my home.
Dave Lee: One of the ‘north stars’ in your job is the creation of [a device like] the Star Trek computer [from the 1960s TV show] . . .
Dave Limp: This was [Gene] Roddenberry in the 60s. So talk about a dreamer that was truly visionary.
Dave Lee: But most people would have thought, by 2022, we’ll have that.
Dave Limp: . . . I couldn’t project the date at which we will converge with that north star . . . It’s not next year, or the year after. It is five, 10-plus years out.
But if I . . . went back seven years, and I put the original, cylindrical Echo in front of you with only the functionality and the voice that Alexa had on that product, and I put it right next to the [latest] Echo Studio . . . it’s a couple of orders of magnitude more intelligent now than it was when we launched it.
And that’s just the nature of how fast this golden age of computer science is leading us down this path.
The above transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity