Can Amazon maintain its AI dominance?

Amazon is winning the home assistant wars, and the tech company took another step forward on Tuesday by unveiling the Echo Show, a touchscreen version of the Amazon Echo. The Echo Show practically combines the Echo with a tablet, meaning that it can play videos, perform video calls, and even display the lyrics to the a song it is playing.

The Echo Show has prompted some privacy concerns as well as controversy about whether Amazon ripped off a partner’s product to build the Echo Show. But regardless of how successful the Echo Show may be, Amazon has secured a decisive advantage in the home assistant wars. Investor’s Business Daily notes that Amazon has an estimated 70 percent of the home assistant market and has sold over 10 million Echo devices altogether, compared to 24 percent for Google and the Google Assistant.

Competitors like Google will attempt to catch up and the rise of the Internet of Things and home assistants means that Amazon’s advantage of being the first company to create a viable home assistant will diminish. But Amazon has not been sitting on its laurels. Echo has thrived because Amazon has relentlessly pushed itself on AI development by working with third-party developers. Amazon’s strong connections with those developers will be difficult to break, and its competitors face an uphill battle to create a home assistant which will be as popular.

Working together

It may seem bizarre at first for Amazon to surpass Google in AI dominance. Google last year created an AI which defeated the world’s greatest Go player. Google possesses reams of information about practically everyone, which lets it create an AI which can work better with context and answer questions more effectively compared to the Amazon Alexa AI. And it has been acquiring smaller AI companies like mad over the years.

If the fight was purely between Amazon’s AI research department and Google’s, Google would win and Amazon knows it. So Amazon has acquired additional help in the form of third party developers by making Alexa Voice Services and Alexa Skills Kit open to just about anyone. With a few line of codes, developers can integrate Alexa into existing products or create entirely new apps which Alexa calls “skills.”

There are now over 10,000 skills on the Alexa, ranging from a skill to find skills to skills from news organizations like Fox News or CNN to asking what wine goes best with a particular meal. These skills are arguably the Echo’s biggest advantage over the Google Assistant.

But the key here is what these additional skills mean for Amazon’s AI. As noted above, Google’s AI should be superior because it possesses so much information, which means that the Google AI can combine that information with machine learning to build a better AI. But if Amazon Alexa can glean information from third-party sources like CNN, that gives the Alexa a wider array of places to learn from as it obtains its own massive reservoir of data. By getting into the smart home assistant market first and by working with third party developers, Amazon can create a positive feedback loop. A superior AI means that more users will want to use Alexa. The users give Alexa data which it can use to improve itself through machine learning, which encourages more users to sign up with the better AI, and so on.

It comes down to money

Alexa has a serious advantage over the Google Home thanks to its superior third-party development. But it should be noted that Google also has released Actions on Google, its version of the open-source development which will let developers create actions. However, Amazon has another advantage in that it possesses a much clearer endgame for how it will make money off its users beyond mere hardware sales.

Amazon’s ultimate goal is to turn the Echo into the shopping hub of choice for everyone. Instead of driving to a store, you can simply tell your Echo you need a wine bottle or some ebooks, and Echo will order it directly from the Amazon store. Google by contrast faces challenges in getting its advertising business model to work with the Google Home, and a small attempt to audio advertise “The Beauty and the Beast” met with swift backlash.

Keeping a user base high and constantly using either the Home or Echo is important for AI development, as more users means more data means more machine learning. It will be far easier for Amazon, who knows how it wants to make money, to keep its user base while Google will have to experiment and make mistake.

It should be noted that despite all of the aforementioned problems, Google has still made progress and grabbing a quarter of the home assistant market in a few months is a good sign. But Amazon has secured a decisive advantage with the Echo and the new Echo Show, and it is hard to see it losing that advantage and its lead in AI development.