Cultural context is the hardest part of speaking a foreign language. Amazon’s Alexa could change that

Can AI get real?
Can AI get real?
Image: AP Photo/Jeff Chiu
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If you’re traveling and unsure of how to ask for a table at a restaurant, Amazon wants Alexa to have your back.

A report from Yahoo Finance suggests that Amazon is looking to amp up Alexa’s translation skills, by also including how to respond to cultural norms. That means in addition to facilitating cross-lingual conversations in real time, Alexa would be able to provide answers like what to say to the father of the bride at a wedding in Japan, the Yahoo report says.

Amazon, which currently offers AI translation as a service for developers, does not currently provide cultural context or understanding through Alexa. Many researchers find that context—not just matching words or phrases to their counterparts in other languages—is a standing challenge in AI research.

Others are trying similar tactics—the Google Translate app can translate a two-way conversation with an internet connection, though without the promise of understanding cultural context.

Word of this potential Alexa upgrade suggests that Amazon is getting more serious about taking Alexa mobile. While the digital personal assistant lives in the Alexa app for Android users and as an optional assistant for a few smartphones, it’s most associated with Amazon’s smart speakers. The company has released a slightly mobile Alexa unit for the home, the Alexa Dash Wand, which has a barcode scanner and can summon the assistant via wi-fi.

Will Amazon shoot for another smartphone? Or will the company shoehorn the Alexa into more smartphones as the de facto smart assistant? Maybe we should try asking Alexa.