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Amazon proposes bundling multiple virtual assistants in a single device

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Amazon has launched a project which will allow for Alexa to be bundled together with other virtual assistants in a single device, with some notable exclusions.

Voice-controlled virtual assistants such as Amazon’s Alexa, Google’s Assistant, Microsoft’s Cortana and Apple’s Siri allow a person to issue commands through speech. These virtual assistants are trained to parse and respond with a synthesised voice to spoken commands via natural-language processing. Virtual assistants are often embodied in smartphones and smart home devices, such as Amazon Echo (Alexa) or Google Home (Assistant).

Amazon’s ‘Voice Interoperability Initiative’ program aims to make different virtual assistants “work seamlessly alongside one another on a single device”, with support for a plurality of wake words (used to indicate the beginning of a ‘conversation’ with a virtual assistant). According to Amazon, Alexa is capable of supporting multiple wake words, allowing people to access different virtual assistants using their own wake words on a single device running the Alexa Voice Service.

“Multiple simultaneous wake words provide the best option for customers,” said Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, in a statement. “Utterance by utterance, customers can choose which voice service will best support a particular interaction. It’s exciting to see these companies come together in pursuit of that vision.”

More than 30 companies are involved in the initiative, including Microsoft (which agreed with Amazon to integrate Cortana and Alexa across Windows 10 PCs and Amazon Echo devices last year), Baidu, BMW, Logitech, Salesforce, Intel, Qualcomm, Spotify, Sony Audio Group, Tencent, and Bose.

Salesforce chairman and co-CEO Marc Benioff commented: “We’re in the midst of an incredible technological shift, in which voice and AI are completely transforming the customer experience.”

The initiative notably excludes some of the largest players in the space: Google’s Assistant, Apple’s Siri and Samsung’s Bixby.

According to reports, Google was approached by Amazon to discuss its participation in the Voice Interoperability Initiative, but had just days before the announcements, giving it insufficient time to evaluate whether it should join the project.

A Google spokesperson told Reuters: “We just heard about this initiative and would need to review the details, but in general we’re always interested in participating in efforts that have the broad support of the ecosystem and uphold strong privacy and security practices.”

Amazon is expected to announce a range of new devices and services at an event at its Seattle headquarters this week, including earphones which can be controlled by Alexa, a larger and more powerful Amazon Echo smart speaker and new offerings associated with its new Fire TV.

Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook, Google and Apple have all come under fire in recent months following reports that human workers have been directed to listen to audio recordings in order to improve their natural language processing capabilities, including recordings captured accidentally.

It was also announced today that fast-food restaurant chain McDonald's is to begin using Alexa to source new employees, via the 'McDonald’s Apply Thru' skill. Prospective burger-flippers will be able to start a job application by saying, “Alexa, help me get a job at McDonald’s” to their smart device.

In a platform-agnostic move, job seekers can also use any device with the Google Assistant built-in by saying, "OK Google, talk to McDonald’s Apply Thru.”

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