Amazon’s Alexa Is Getting Smarter, But Potentially More Intrusive

Users will be able to opt-in to weather and news notifications with the A.I. home assistant

Photo Illustration: Diana Quach
May 16, 2017 at 4:37 PM ET

If you think the Amazon Echo is already annoying enough every time it randomly activates when it accidentally hears its name, wait till it starts sending you notifications.

Amazon announced Tuesday that it’s launching a new “Notifications for Alexa” feature, which allows the AI assistant to proactively alert users with information that’s important to them. Notifications will first become available to The Washington Post, AccuWeather, Just Eat, and Life360. Eventually, more companies with Alexa skills (features) will be added to the notifications feature.

Amazon said that when the service becomes available, it’ll only work if customers opt-in. So don’t worry, Alexa won’t just start accosting you with breaking news and random weather reports if you don’t want them — but as with notifications on smartphones, it’s easy to imagine customers who do sign up for notifications becoming overwhelmed or finding them unexpectedly intrusive or hard to manage. Amazon will also introduce a do not disturb setting, which suspends all notifications for awhile.

The announcement of Notifications comes one week after Amazon announced the Echo Show, which is just like the original speaker, but with an embedded screen and camera. Amazon has been trying to capitalize on the popularity of the Echo series, but at the same time trying to perfect the technology.

Along with Notifications, the online retailer is also rolling out a cloud-based wake word verification feature that will improve Alexa’s accuracy whenever it hears its name — or thinks it hears its name. The Echo is infamous for activating whenever it hears a word remotely similar to “Alexa.” With this new feature, any third-party device that supports Alexa will use Amazon’s cloud servers to confirm that the word “Alexa” was actually used by a consumer before it turns on and completes a command. However, this means that Amazon will now have access to all audio from any device with Alexa.

Customers who are interested in opting-in for Notifications can sign up on Amazon’s website to get notified (by email, not Alexa) when the feature becomes available.