Teacher: “Alexa, open English Teacher.”

Alexa: “Good morning, class. What do you want to learn today? Prepositions, pronouns, or articles?”

Teacher: “Open pronouns for class two, section C.”

Alexa: “Ok! I would like Ravi and Anusha to come forward for a small activity,” calling two children from that class. 

“Kids, Ravi went to the market to buy eggs but she did not find any. Is this right or wrong, children?”

“Wrong!” the children shout in unison.

The teacher here is using e-commerce giant Amazon’s artificial intelligence (AI)-powered voice assistant to teach a class of 50. The device ‘speaks’ in an Indian accent (and a default female voice) thereby making it easier for the students to follow its diction.

This is a school that was once struggling to find an English teacher. Alexa may have fixed that problem.

It has been a year since Alexa came to India. Thanks to a community of 40,000 developers who have developed over 19,000 voice skills for Alexa, it can now do more than answer what is the factorial of sixty (product of an integer and all integers below it). Voice skills are to Alexa what apps are to Android or iOS.

“Schools struggle to find English teachers, which is why we decided to build this English Teacher skill for pre-primary and primary children,” says Vishnu Saran, founder of Voice Qube, a company that makes voice skills. Saran is looking to do a beta launch of this skill by the end of this month at the Gokavaram Govt School in East Godavari district, Andhra Pradesh.

However, Alexa’s most popular use cases continue to be rather basic. Games, music, and questions about the weather are mostly what people currently use the device for.

In the long run, though, it could prove useful for skills that make it worth the Amazon’s while. Skills like shopping, making payments, or discovering new products. This is part of Amazon’s Star Trek vision of Alexa being able to take voice commands for just about everything. 

Bezos' pillars

Jeff Bezos called Alexa the fourth pillar for the company after e-commerce, its cloud business Amazon Web Services (AWS) and the subscription service Prime

But right now, what stands between Amazon and its vision is the kind of skills being built for Alexa. As one of the partners working with Amazon said, “Most developers are approaching voice skill building as a hobby. They are solving their own problems rather than creating a user base.”

As a result, the skills in the store have no consistency.

AUTHOR

Arundhati Ramanathan

Arundhati is Bengaluru-based. She is interested in how people use money in the digital age and how new economies will take shape based on that interaction. She has spent over 10 years reporting and writing on various subjects. Previous stints were at Mint, Outlook Business and Reuters.

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