Alexa is about to get a lot snappier

Can AI get real?
Can AI get real?
Image: AP Photo/Jeff Chiu
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Amazon’s virtual assistant Alexa could be getting an upgrade in the near future.

Amazon is joining the ranks of Google and Apple in creating its own custom processing chips for AI, according to a report (paywall) from The Information. This potential chip would give Alexa devices, like the Amazon Echo, the ability to transcribe and respond to voice commands faster. On today’s devices, all that work is sent up to Amazon’s data centers. The new speciality chip could also be useful for Amazon’s cloud business, speeding up AI processes that it sells to business customers.

Right now, the chips in today’s Alexa-powered devices can only handle a select few words, like the various wake words used to summon Alexa. The new technology would reduce the delay in response for simple tasks where Alexa doesn’t have to pull in information from outside services, like checking the time or turning on connected lights.

These custom chips, called “application-specific integrated circuits,” are built to handle extremely specific software. They would allow Amazon to build hardware that maximizes the capability of its Alexa software, much like Apple does with its smartphones and watches. Google has created similar specialty chips for its data centers called Tensor Processing Units, or TPUs. The company credits its ability to train complex AI systems like AlphaGo to the speed and low power consumption of TPUs.

Amazon has nearly 600 people capable of contributing to this kind of hardware project across the world, after two quiet acquisitions in recent years, according to The Information report.