Alexa might be the new Wikipedia.
Amazon has officially rolled out its new “Alexa Answers” program, which allows anyone to provide a response to questions Alexa doesn’t already have answers for. When that happens, she’ll tell you the answer is “according to an Amazon customer.”
Amazon tested the program last year on an invite-only basis for thousands of its customers. Fast Company says Amazon got hundreds of thousands of responses just from that limited group of people. Now that the program is open to everyone, there’s no telling how much information will be contributed via Alexa Answers.
“Our North Star, our overall vision, is we’d love it if Alexa can answer any question people ask her, no matter what the language, where they are, what the device,” said Bill Barton, Amazon VP of Alexa Information in a conversation with Fast Company. “We’re focused on Alexa as an objective, factual information source with this particular effort.”
If you’re wondering if Amazon really had to make this move, consider that it’s in competition with Google Assistant, which has at its disposal billions of pages collected for its search engine. Amazon doesn’t have that luxury, and has had to license the data it collects from sources it determines to be high-quality.
“It’s just part of Amazon’s DNA to engage our community of users in helping to provide more information for customers who are asking questions,” said Barton.
But how do you know you can trust the answers you’re getting from other Amazon users? Everyone knows Wikipedia is a bit of a crapshoot when it comes to accuracy. And Amazon already has to deal with fake reviews. Aside from doing what it already does, like filtering out profanity, how will the company keep the trolls at bay?
Fast Company says Amazon is going to attempt to filter out questions with a “political angle,” and that sometimes human editors and algorithms will be used for quality control. Other than that, the company is banking on upvotes and downvotes.
“Amazon is hoping that a basic upvote and downvote system will help keep out low-quality responses,” says Fast Company. The stats on those answers are then compiled onto a contributor’s profile so that they can see how their answers are helping other people. Or not. “If a contributor receives too much negative feedback, Amazon may start providing fewer of that person’s responses to Alexa users, though even in that case, Barton says the company will stop short of banning a user outright.”
Okay, but Amazon users don’t even have to provide Alexa with a citation for their answers. So, if you want to check the veracity of a particular response, you’d likely have to sit down and Google it. Seems like that would be the opposite of what Amazon wants.
“We’re certainly open to revisiting it if we get strong feedback from contributors or from end-users if they find more attribution beneficial,” said Barton, “but in general what we find from our community is that they prefer crispness and conciseness in their responses.”
Barton says Alexa Answers is particularly good for getting information about breaking news, because customers can often provide a response more quickly than an automated system could. He says when Barbara Bush died in 2018, Amazon was in the midst of doing internal testing for Alexa Answers, and a ton of people were asking where Bush would be buried. Just within that internal testing, says Fast Company, Amazon was able to get an answer and quickly provide it to users.
“We’ve seen cases where, in a very short period of time, you now have an answer because somebody in the community provided it,” said Barton.
If you’d like to participate in the Alexa Answers program, simply go to the official website. There, you can see pending queries, as well as provide your own responses.