Beyond simple answers, Amazon’s Alexa could grow to have opinions … like a video store movie buff

CES panel
The “State of the Stream” panel on stage at CES in Las Vegas on Wednesday. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

LAS VEGAS — Amazon joined the Walt Disney Co., Fandango and more of the biggest names in content delivery to assess the “State of the Stream” during a panel discussion at CES on Wednesday.

And once again, Amazon’s digital voice assistant Alexa became part of the conversation, as is almost always the case these days when the talk turns to whatever Amazon is doing.

Marc Whitten, an Amazon vice president and GM with the company’s Fire TV business, joined Lisa Sugar of Pop Sugar, Andrew Sugerman of Disney Consumer Products and Interactive Media, Alex Walace of Oath, and Paul Yanover of Fandango in an event moderated by Variety’s Todd Spangler.

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Marc Whitten, Amazon VP with Fire TV, center, is flanked by Alex Wallace of Oath and Paul Yanover, president of Fandango, at CES. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

Whitten, the former Xbox Live executive with Microsoft, said that because there is so much content available “over the top” these days when it comes to television and streaming, the focus is on how to make finding that content effortless and fun.

“We’re working with Alexa to make it easy to use consistent natural language to find this massive amount of content with something with a little more control than a remote control,” Whitten said.

And the large amount of data — and data expertise — that Amazon has at its disposal in relation to its consumers is being used to fuel that Fire TV experience.

Whitten said that when a user goes to the home screen on their streaming box, it’s important to have the things that most matter right there in front of the person sitting in front of that home screen.

“That plays out through building strong personalization, strong recommendations — which is all based on an understanding of data,” Whitten said. “Rolling in things like Alexa, one of the things that we’ve been learning is that it’s not even just necessarily about the facts. One of the big things we’re doing with Alexa is making sure that she has opinions. What does Alexa think is something that’s a good thing to watch? And those things play off each other — you almost want to recreate the video store movie buff and have an assistant sitting in your living room.”

Alexa the opinionated movie fan becomes just that through a deep understanding of data, which Whitten said she acquires both via what’s going on in the zeitgeist and through what her users actually care about on the platform.

Alex Wallace, the former NBC News executive who now heads up the creative and development team for Verizon’s Oath Studios, said she is fascinated by voice.

“I talk to Alexa — I clearly don’t have a social life — I talk to Alexa and Google Home every morning,” Wallace said. “And I keep waiting — I talk to them quite a lot — and at some point they should know me well enough that they should know at what time of day what type of information and or content I want.”

Spangler threw back to Whitten — and drew a laugh from the crowd — asking him how Amazon deals with the “creepiness factor” of its ever-present AI.

Whitten said it all starts with transparency and making sure customers know they have control of how much they share with a platform.

And he said it’s been interesting with Fire TV to learn how customers use the voice-activated remote to search for content, uttering single phrases or short titles. But when they talk to Alexa, they’re more prone to use expressive conversation about what they really want.

“That to me feels less creepy because it’s actually starting to get into a conversation about what they’re trying to get to” versus some magic word they have to say to get some result back out.

“If done well I think that can be the power of natural language,” Whitten said.