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Jeff Bezos on Alexa: "Voice is only going to take you so far on shopping"

Alex Spencer

Amazon Jeff BezosFollowing the Echo becoming a big success for Amazon, it's been commonly observed that the Alexa-powered device is a double win for Amazon. Not only is it a £150 sale for the retailer, it's another way of putting access to its products in people's homes – like a glorified, voice-activated version of its Dash buttons.

But according to Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, that wasn't the company's intent. Asked in a Billboard interview whether the Echo meant 'an Amazon cash register in every house in the country', Bezos replied:

"It’s not about that. For sure, if you have a two-year-old and you see that you’re running low on diapers, we want to make that easy for you. But voice interface is only going to take you so far on shopping. It’s good for reordering consumables, where you don’t have to make a lot of choices, but most online shopping is going to be facilitated by having a display. Alexa is primarily about identifying tasks in the household that would be improved by voice. Music is one. Another is home automation. So, you can say, 'Alexa, turn off all the lights in the house.' 'Alexa, turn the temperature up two degrees.' That’s really an amazing thing to be able to do."

Bezos described Echo and Alexa as one of the two "freight trains kind of pulling the business along", next to its Prime service.

Talking about the origins of the technology, Bezos said: "We worked on Echo and Alexa behind the scenes. No one knew we were working on it for almost four years. And we had a couple thousand people working on it. Now it’s more, and they are among the best machine-learning computer scientists in the world.

"We just started early. We’ve been doing machine learning inside Amazon for more than a decade and using it for things like customer recommendations and other things that are down a level from the consumer."

As a music magazine, Billboard might seem a strange venue for an interview with Amazon's chief executive about the company's latest hardware. Bezos was there to promote Amazon's Music Unlimited streaming service, saying that he believes "the next gigantic growth area for the music industry is the home". As with most recent coverage of Amazon, though, its AI products – and how they can combine with its music services – became the focus.

"It’s one of the most customer-centric things we’ve ever done," he said. "The ability of natural language to control your music right into your kitchen or bedroom. It’s the perfect marriage between high tech – Alexa and Echo – and this thing that people everywhere love, which is music."