With Amazon Answers, Users Can Help Alexa With the Tough Questions



Alexa may be getting an assist in answering life’s biggest questions – from her users.

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Anyone who’s ever played “Stump Alexa” already knows: while Alexa is extremely helpful, her information retrieving powers do have limits. A new information-sourcing initiative through Amazon is aiming to change that.

After an extensive test in-house that added more than 100,000 answers to the voice assistant’s database, Amazon announced this week that it’s opening up its Alexa Answers crowdsourced answer program to select users, via email invitation. “In addition to advanced technology—such as machine learning and natural language understanding—and our many trustworthy information sources, we’re involving the Alexa customer community to help us answer questions Alexa can’t quite answer yet,” they shared in their company blog this week.

Addressing this gap in utility is part and parcel of this evolving method for search. The South Florida Business Journal notes that this new challenge is grounded, in part, by how queries are framed to a voice assistant versus how they’re framed through a search engine. “Asking Alexa questions will make you realize that your voice searches usually include more than five words and start with ‘how’ or ‘what.’ It will also help you understand the growing need for pages on your website that have ‘conversational content’ that, when searched, can deliver understandable answers to voice queries.” Alexa Answers will aim to make answers available to Alexa that are framed in this easily accessible manner.

It’s worth noting that Amazon users are currently able to inform one another in a number of different ways. In their blog, Amazon reminds readers “for nearly 20 years, we’ve allowed customers to offer their input on products through customer reviews and community-based answers.” The fidelity of this input has been addressed through features like “Verified Purchase” reviews. For the time being, this important process is even more tightly controlled; at this point, editors are being invited via email, and the pool of Alexa users selected to inform the voice assistant is small. When these crowdsourced answers are shared, they will be prefaced by a disclaimer of sorts indicating them as having come from an Alexa user.

Although this approach has been tested heavily with sites like Quora and Wikipedia, there are still some risks to having humans provide information to AI. Recently, Google had to disable portions of its SmartCompose and SmartReply software after its challenges with gender and gender pronouns. Two years ago, Microsoft’s Tay had to be taken offline after Twitter users supplied it information that made it racist.

The email-invite nature of this project may prevent some of that, but Amazon would do well to pay close attention to the data supplied, and adjust as needed to avoid embarrassing or damaging gaffes. Nevertheless, a very real danger that exists for Alexa Answers is a danger that exists whenever data is supplied to AI tools, and The Next Web’s Vishwam Sankaran put it best in reference to the Google story: “AI is only as fair as the data it learns from.”

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