Hey Alexa, catch up — Amazon is reportedly struggling with a new generation of AI features

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(Image credit: Google)

In a surprising bit of news, a new report suggests that Amazon is nowhere close to releasing a new version of its Alexa voice assistant. With Google announcing its Gemini AI assistant, Apple previewing Siri 2.0 and OpenAI showing off  GPT-4o in recent weeks, Amazon's rivals are leaving the shopping giant behind.

It's a surprise considering last year, Amazon was showing off an Alexa that seemed miles ahead of where Google and Apple were at the time. Just this past January, Amazon was announcing new generative AI skills for Alexa. Last month, a CNBC report suggested that the company wants to turn the voice assistant into a conversational chatbot. 

But a new report from Fortune indicates that Amazon is fighting an uphill battle with integrating generative AI into Alexa. Fortune is pay-walled but the lengthy report is available in full via Yahoo syndication.

The reasons that Amazon is failing to produce an updated Alexa appear to be myriad but broadly, according to Fortune, it's because Amazon "is an organization beset by structural dysfunction and technological challenges that have repeatedly delayed shipment of the new generative AI-powered Alexa. Overall, the former employees paint a picture of a company desperately behind its rivals Google, Microsoft, and Meta in the race to launch AI chatbots and agents, and floundering in its efforts to catch up."

The information in Fortune's report is drawn from interviews with multiple former employees who described the dysfunctional organization as blowing its shot at dominating AI. A simple example is that Chat-GPT caught Amazon by surprise. 

An Amazon spokesperson told Fortune that the data for the story was "dated" and did not reflect the current state of Alexa. It should be noted that it was reported in November 2023 by The Verge that several hundred employees were laid off from the Alexa and Fire TV teams. 

Other than layoffs, the former employees told Fortune that they left because they didn't believe Alexa would ever be ready. 

One reported problem is that Amazon doesn't seem to have an idea of how to integrate what Alexa currently does into what the company wants it to do. A demo in September showed off a friendly, conversational voice assistant, similar to what OpenAI demonstrated with GPT-4o before Scarlett Johansson shut the Sky voice down

Apparently, since that demo, the Alexa LLM has struggled to actually understand conversational language. And customers have an understanding of how to actually talk to the assistant in "Alexa language." An employee told Fortune, "we need to basically burn the bridge with the old Alexa AI model and pivot to only working on the new one."

Employees told Fortune that Amazon isn't utilizing the assets that it actually owns like Anthropic AI, which makes the Claude LLM. Some of that is due to privacy concerns and some of it is Amazon lacking the access to AI-specific chips like Apple's new M4 chip or Qualcomm's Snapdragon X Elite. An Amazon spokesperson disputed both of those reports.

Tech companies in the modern era like to use agile management techniques that can lead to huge teams that are increasingly siloed from each other. It requires scrum leaders that understand how to communicate product and team needs across team leadership. It sounds like Amazon's decentralized organization doesn't have that communication, which would cause friction in getting teams to communicate.

One concrete way this affects Alexa is that the Amazon Home team makes changes to Alexa to get the assistant to be helpful for everyday Home tasks. Then the Music team comes in and tweaks Alexa to work for playing music. These separate teams making changes to Alexa cause the program to completely fail.

Wherever Alexa and AI currently are at Amazon, they are clearly behind. 

Even with Microsoft fumbling its Recall feature, Copilot and AI PCs are coming this summer. Apple's new Apple Intelligence is expected to hit iPhones this fall and Google is slowly rolling out new Gemini AI features since they were announced at I/O 2024. And OpenAI is getting into bed with everyone

Eventually an updated Alexa LLM might roll out, but it sounds like it'll be a case of "what could have been" rather than a forward look to the future of AI assistants from a company that was leading the pack until recently.

Amazon is behind, and unless something changes soon, Alexa is being left in the dust.

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Scott Younker
West Coast Reporter

Scott Younker is the West Coast Reporter at Tom’s Guide. He covers all the lastest tech news. He’s been involved in tech since 2011 at various outlets and is on an ongoing hunt to build the easiest to use home media system. When not writing about the latest devices, you are more than welcome to discuss board games or disc golf with him.