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You’ve probably seen those amusing TV ads for Amazon Echo – the ones where the characters are talking to “Alexa” in an effort to get out of a difficult situation. “Alexa,” of course, is not a person, any more than “Siri” is a person on your iPhone. “Alexa” is a voice-activated service for the Amazon Echo that lets people connect with their content – news, music, audio books and weather forecasts – just with their voice.
The voice-activated user interface has rapidly evolved from being just a cheap parlor trick – getting a digital device to tell you the weather forecast for the day using a female voice – into a potential new social media platform powered by artificial intelligence. Lots of traditional publishers – including NPR, The Guardian, Tech Crunch and The Washington Post – are now exploring ways to get their content onto the Amazon Echo. (The Washington Post is an interesting example, because Jeff Bezos owns it, and he also owns Amazon, so that seems to be a natural match.).
The Amazon Echo as a social platform
The problem is that, for many people, the Amazon Echo doesn’t look or feel like a social media platform. It’s a digital device you buy for $179, so it must be hardware, right? Well, yes and no. Keep in mind – you are also interacting with “Alexa,” even if she is really only a bot powered by AI. So that makes it social, to some extent. And the TV ads from Amazon certainly hint that people are supposed to think of Alexa the same way they might their pets – you want them around you for companionship, even if they can’t talk about the latest “Game of Thrones” episode with you.
And there’s one more element here to consider – Alexa theoretically makes it possible to connect socially with your favorite publishing companies. One feature that Amazon is rolling out is the “Flash Briefing,” which is really just a 60-second or 90-second content blast from a publishing company for the Echo. Slate, for example, is just repurposing some of its podcast content and turning it into “90 Seconds With Slate.” And Harvard Business Review is turning its content into a “Daily Management Tip” that people can listen to before heading out to the office.
Hanging out with social bots
But let’s go one step deeper. If Alexa is an AI-powered bot, then why can’t Alexa hook you up with other AI-powered bots that are part of her “social network”? Then, this would become a true social media platform.
Here’s how it would work: a publisher, say, Bon Appétit or Food and Wine, would create a “Recipe of the Day” from a famous chef that could be loaded onto Alexa. Then, each morning, you could fire up your Amazon Echo and ask, ”Alexa, tell me the recipe of the day.” Alexa would read the recipe to you, and if you liked it, you could ask Alexa to put you in touch with the chef to get more details about the recipe. However, here’s the big thing – you wouldn’t actually be talking to the chef, you’d be talking to an AI-powered bot of the chef. But this bot would know as much as Mario Batali or any other famous chef.
This would represent, in many ways, an upgrade of what we have today on social media. Today, if you like Mario Batali, you’d go to Facebook and “friend” him or “like” his fan page. But you’re not really friends with Mario Batali – you’re friends with his PR and marketing team, which is creating all the content for Facebook. In the same way, with the AI-powered Echo, you wouldn’t really be friends with Mario Batali, you’d be friends with his bot.
That’s why Amazon Echo might start out being just a hardware device and turn out to be the next social media platform. Instead of typing in status updates with your fingers, you’d be sending them out with your voice. And instead of being friends with people, you’d be friends with bots. Welcome to the future.