When we introduced Alexa in November 2014, she could do 13 things – she could tell you the weather, play music, answer basic questions, set timers, and catch you up on news headlines. Customers told us the experience was magical – it was a completely new and improved way to interact with technology. But our vision was to invent the Star Trek computer – and Alexa needed to know a lot more before this vision could be realized. We’ve been hard at work to teach Alexa even more – from new languages, to better natural language understanding, to adding new features that make her more useful. There’s still a long way to go, but we’re excited about Alexa’s progress, which wouldn’t be possible without the teams across Amazon who are behind the scenes solving some of the hardest AI challenges in the world.
“The ADS team and data associates play a critical role in making Alexa smarter. Many of the scientific breakthroughs we’ve made with Alexa wouldn’t be possible without their hard work.”
Of the many challenges, teaching Alexa the many nuances of human language is one of the most difficult, because what might be easy for a human to understand is hard for computer systems. It requires a dedicated team of Amazonians with high judgment constantly training machine learning models about the nuances of natural language. This is the focus of the Alexa Data Services (ADS) team, which is made up of data associates, language experts, and scientists who work together every day to create the foundation that Alexa AI is built on.
“The ADS team and data associates play a critical role in making Alexa smarter,” says Rohit Prasad, vice president and head scientist, Alexa AI. “Many of the scientific breakthroughs we’ve made with Alexa wouldn’t be possible without their hard work.”
The team reviews a small fraction of one percent of requests made to Alexa in order to train her to more accurately interpret requests and provide the best responses to customers in context. Data associates do not have access to identifying information from customer accounts as part of this process, which protects customer privacy while still allowing the team to do this important work. For example, a data associate reviewing a request for the weather in Austin can identify if Alexa misinterpreted it as a request for the weather in Boston. Or they can teach Alexa that if a customer in the UK asks about when the Spurs play, they are likely referring to the soccer team in London, versus the basketball team in San Antonio. The team’s work also helps teach Alexa to better understand customers with different accents or unique speech patterns, so she works well for everyone. This feedback helps Alexa understand the correct interpretation of customer requests and provide the appropriate response in the future.
Along with getting to work on exciting emerging technology, many ADS team members learn valuable skills that have helped propel their careers at Amazon and beyond.
Here are some of their stories
Arman Sanentz, Team Manager
"Working in ADS has been a challenging and rewarding experience. I often reflect back on my data associate days in my current role as a team manager. As an associate, I was provided the opportunity to learn about machine learning, and was empowered to create solutions that not only address immediate problems, but create a more sustainable mechanism for continued improvement of how we train Alexa.
While I continue to support data creation and analysis, now I also get to think about new ways to improve quality and operations. With the support of ADS here in the United States and overseas, I’ve managed colleagues tasked with monitoring device behavior and overseen the launch of devices in new locales. I am fortunate to have such a great group to work with."
Faye Wix, Process Owner, Prime Air
"Working as a data associate for Alexa was very motivating because I knew that I was helping to develop cutting edge technology. What’s amazing is that Alexa didn’t even exist a few years ago, and now she is part of millions of people’s lives, playing music and telling jokes.
None of that would be possible without data associates. During my onboarding, I offered some honest feedback about the training process. The training manager not only accepted the feedback, but he also gave me the opportunity to develop and improve the training process and resources. That experience helped me naturally transition into my next role as an on-site training specialist within ADS. The people who I have worked with are motivated, intelligent, and focused on delivering the highest quality data possible for customers."
Senthil Kumaran, Dev Ops Engineer
"As a data associate, I understood that I should never underestimate the work we do to further machine learning, and that all of our work is interlinked and affects the design and development of Alexa. ADS opens avenues for employees to prove their technical expertise.
Skill development initiatives give associates the chance to continue exploring and experimenting. One of these programs is the Developing Operational Talent (DOT) initiative. I was selected as one of a four-member team, and this process gave wings to my technical dreams. I worked on developing operational processes, suggested automations, and started partnering closely with the Development Team in Hyderabad, India. Once I got the role of Dev Ops Engineer on ADS Tech and moved to Hyderabad, I was able to continue breaking down barriers in communication and nuances. Now, I’m a Dev Ops Engineer for our AI-machine learning platform. I owe this to the Team Managers and ADS leadership for their constant support."
Interested in working on the Alexa Data Services team?