Amazon’s digital voice assistant Alexa has arrived in Australia, ready to speak to the public in a native accent.
Alexa, which will be available on Amazon Echo devices on sale in Australia from today at a discount — shows a basic but growing working knowledge of Aussie culture, all presented in a voice that sounds like a classic local television newsreader.
Business Insider spoke to Alexa yesterday at an introductory session organised by the company in Sydney. Asked about the surf at Bondi, the Aussie Alexa replied that it was “pumping”.
“You should probably chuck a sickie,” she said in a straight voice.
The device is part of Amazon’s attempt to burrow deeper into Australian homes, creating an identifiably Australian digital helper who takes commands via voice.
More than 100 local staff have been involved in helping Alexa, Amazon’s cloud-based artificial intelligence platform, to understand Australian idioms, in a development process that has been underway for a year.
Amazon also unveils partnerships and content offerings from Qantas and two major banks as part of the rollout.
The launch of Alexa, and the associated hardware Echo, is the US-based retail giant Amazon’s next move after launching its retail offering late last year, with hundreds of thousands of discounted goods and one-day delivery, on its Australian website.
From today, the voice-controlled Echo speakers featuring Alexa — Echo Dot ($79), Echo ($149) and Echo Plus ($229) — will be on sale.
However, in a sign of how aggressively Amazon intends to rapidly establish a customer base, all of those products will be sold at a $30 discount over the coming weeks.
The launch includes the arrival in Australia of Amazon Music Unlimited, which will compete with Spotify, Apple Music, and Google Play, with the addition of a backlist of local Australian talent, a local top 50 playlist, and an Australian rock royalty list.
The cost per month to access 45 million tracks is $4.99 per month on one device or $11.99 a month for any device. Echo device owners get a free 90-day trial.
Playing music works well with Alexa and Echo. Just tell it what you want or let Alexa decide — she learns your tastes over time and can make suggestions.
She also can control lighting if you have smart globes, keep track of the latest cricket scores, knows when and where Australia is playing next, and can read you an ebook.
Alexa can also help prepare dinner with recipes from Taste.com.au, check travel details and get loyalty program updates from Qantas, or check bank account balances with Westpac or the NAB.
It’s all about the Australianisation of Alexa.
Amazon has a series of local content feeds it pumps into Alexa. That’s how it knows the weather, the surf conditions, local geography and what’s happening out in the world.
Asking “Alexa, what’s the news?” results in customised updates based on your preferences. Local news outlets accessed include Ten News, Sky News Australia, SBS and Fox Sports.
Questions she can answer include:
- “Alexa, who is the Australian Prime Minister?”
- “How long is the Sydney Harbour Bridge?”
- “Alexa, what’s a sausage sizzle?”
The local input means that when you thank her, Alexa might reply with “no worries” rather than the American-style “you’re welcome.”
The voice is female but isn’t based on one person’s voice. It’s an amalgam of many, sliced and put back together.
“Alexa, tell me a joke.”
She says: “Why does John Farnham meditate? To take the pressure down” – a reference to his 1980s song Pressure Down.
Apparently, Alexa has a sense of humour, which currently goes to a deep database of very corny dad jokes at the shallow end of the comedy spectrum.
“She is speaking proper English. She is an Australian voice and we built that from the ground up,” Dave Limp, senior vice president, Devices and Services, Amazon, told Business Insider.
“Alexa has a personality and I think she is embodied with intelligence and she should have a bit of authority. But at the same time she is friendly, she is funny.
“We have teams who are focused on how we embody a personality into Alexa. Those teams can’t be sitting back in Seattle. Our teams are local and they think about all the local things that might make Alexa more Australian.
“We’ll get a lot of that right when we launch and we’ll learn a lot as we go along. She’ll continue to get better over time.”
Limp is a personal user of Echo-accessed Alexa.
“Alexa, add Vegemite to my shopping list,” he says, demonstrating Alexa’s ability.
“I have added Vegemite to your shopping list,” says Alexa.
Alexa also has opinions. Her favourite Australian rules footy player is Patrick Dangerfield of Geelong.
“Three words — Tough as nails,” she says.
Alex can also be used as a communications assistant, connecting to other Echo users across the world via voice or via a downloadable app on a smartphone or as an intercom at home.
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