Teachable AI will help Alexa users set up preferences

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Amazon today detailed a forthcoming capability for Alexa — Teachable AI — that will enable the assistant to ask questions in order to fill gaps in its understanding. First announced during the company’s September virtual press event, Teachable AI leverages machine learning to determine whether a request can be a trigger for a teachable moment. If Alexa makes this determination, it’ll ask a customer for information to help it learn.

Amazon says that Teachable AI will become available in the next few months for smart home devices before expanding to other areas.

Scientists at Amazon’s Alexa AI research division have long pursued semi-supervised and unsupervised learning techniques, in which AI systems learn to make predictions without ingesting gobs of annotated data. Semi-supervised and unsupervised learning have their limitations, too, but both promise to supercharge Alexa and other voice assistants’ capabilities by imbuing a human-like capacity for inference.

In the case of Teachable AI, if a customer says something like, “Alexa, set the living room light to study mode,” Alexa might now respond, “I don’t know what study mode is, can you teach me?” The assistant will extract a definition from the customer’s answer and when the customer later makes the same (or similar) request, Alexa will reply with the learned action.

As another example, when reading the latest best-selling novel, Alexa might not automatically know that a customer’s preferred setting is 40% brightness when they ask, “Alexa, set the light to Rohit’s reading mode.” Using Teachable AI, the assistant will ostensibly learn these definitions and corresponding actions and associate them only with a particular account for future use.

“This is an exciting step forward not just for Alexa, but for all AI services that rely on end users to teach them,” vice president and head scientist of Alexa Rahit Prasad wrote in a blog post. “I am excited to [see] … AI advancements bringing us closer to our long-term vision of making interactions with Alexa as simple as speaking to another person.”

Teachable AI builds on latent goal inference, which enables devices powered by Alexa to infer latent goals, or goals implicit in requests but not directly expressed. For instance, if a user says “How long does it take to steep tea?,” Alexa might follow up with “Five minutes is a good place to start” and the question “Would you like me to set a timer for five minutes?” And latent goal inference and Teachable AI complements Natural Turn Taking, an Alexa feature that lets users converse with the assistant without having to repeat a wake word. (Three AI models run in parallel to power Natural Turn Taking, which will initially only be available in English when it launches sometime next year.)

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