Amazon wants developers to train Alexa for India to take on Google Assistant

Amazon wants developers to train Alexa for India to take on Google Assistant
Photo Credit: Reuters
29 Mar, 2018

Amazon’s Alexa and Google Assistant have been squaring off against each other to woo more customers across geographies. For both companies the value propositions lie in a larger base, which allows them to access more customer-specific data and push targeted advertisements.

While Amazon has been forging partnerships to push its Alexa API into different product categories to expand its customer base, Google has been slow on this front with limited tie-ups. The only step I this direction was its recent merger with Nest home products, TVs and smartphones. The internet giant has also been trying to improve voice feedback for its Assistant.

However, the Indian market, which is expected to deliver the next billion internet users, has been a different proposition. And, Amazon is relying on developers to teach its virtual assistant about the country and its obsessions – cricket, Bollywood and religion, among others.

“Alexa is not going to be a visiting American who is going to come to India for a few days and go back. She is as Indian as it gets,” Dilip RS, country manager, Alexa Skills, India, was quoted as saying by The Economic Times. The assistant started off in India with nearly 10,000 skills and is currently believed to have added 5,000 more. Skills are basically functions or commands that Alexa can run or respond to.

But the road to adding skills to Alexa has not been easy, according to a developer quoted by the business daily. Priyankar Kumar, a third-year computer science student who has developed seven apps or skills for Alexa, told the newspaper that building an app for a voice assistant is very different from making one for iOS and Android.

According to Kumar, the developer needs to chart out the various ways the app could be used before even starting to write codes for it. “There is no visual element for these ‘skills’. You have to plan the conversation in your head and translate it into codes. You have to think of utterances. What is the user going to say?”

Amazon, according to Dilip, is also fast-forwarding the development process and adding more developers for Alexa by holding monthly theme-based contests, webinars, meetups and disseminating YouTube videos. The current theme has been IPL skills. “We have a self-explanatory skill-builder tool of sorts. We launched a new version of it last month. It is as simple as drag and drop. For example, if you want to build a joke ‘skill’, you can use our templates and change the content. The entire ‘skill’ gets published in five minutes.”

Dilip also told ET that Alexa was getting better at understanding Indian languages and dialects. “We also look for language modelling. Amazon does a lot of heavy lifting here. We want to ensure that the ‘skills’ are customised for India in terms of spoken-language model perspective. We check for local policies and compliance... any ‘skill’ that violates does not go through.”

The company has also been running hackathons with talent management company HackerEarth. “The idea is to educate the developer community. A lot of ‘skills’ will be used by Indian users. It will enrich the way we interact with machines,” Vivek Prakash, CTO of HackerEarth, was quoted as saying

Google, too, is gearing up its game for India and has asked developers to start making apps or what it calls “Actions” for its assistant. It is working on creating a developer ecosystem in India for its smart speaker, Google Home, which is expected to be launched soon. It has invited developers to build apps on its ‘Actions on Google’ platform. ‘Actions’ is Google’s equivalent to Alexa Skills.

An earlier report by news agency Reuters said Amazon and Google were eager to give consumers a taste of their respective digital assistants, Alexa and Google Assistant, at impulse-buy prices, hoping to lock in customers and profit from later sales of goods and data about buying habits.

According to estimates, Amazon dominates the emerging market for smart speakers outside of China, with Google close behind. Sales of the devices are not yet substantial enough to affect the financial results of either company, added the report. 

Both companies took small losses or broke even on sales of the hockey puck-shaped devices, analysts estimated in the report.