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Amazon is solving one of Alexa’s biggest problems: Skill discovery

New feature uses machine learning to help Alexa automatically run skills

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One of the most frustrating parts of using Amazon Alexa is accessing the Alexa skills catalogue, and knowing which skills to enable, then use.

For example, if you tell Alexa that'd you like to relax but don't know the exact name of a skill (or the phrase required to launch it), the assistant will read out a list of meditation and relaxation skills, or features of a skill you have previously enabled. You then have to say yes or no to each suggestion, which quickly becomes tiresome.

The easiest way to browse and enable new Alexa skills is via the Alexa app or Amazon website, but this detracts from the appeal of using a voice assistant.

Now though, a new feature called 'Can Fulfill Intent Request' can be used by skill developers to help Alexa find and enable a skill to answer the user's question. In short, Alexa will work out what skill you need, even before you do.

Developers need to tell the system what questions or commands their skill can answer, and what phrases a user might utter to activate their skill. Then, when Alexa hears similar phrases, the assistant will enable what it thinks is the most relevant skill and use it, instead of saying it is unable to help, or doesn't understand.

Amazon

So if you ask a question that Alexa cannot immediately answer, the assistant will (silently and in the background) query multiple skills on their ability to answer your question. If Alexa finds a skill that can help, it uses it and provides the answer.

Amazon explains in a note to developers how Alexa combines information about a skill "with a machine-learning model to choose the right skill to use when a customer makes a request...As a result, customers find the right skill faster, using the search terms they say most naturally."

For example, Amazon says, if a customer asks: "Alexa, where is the best surfing today near Santa Barbara?" Alexa can use the new Can Fulfill Intent Request system to ask a bunch of surfing skills whether they can understand and fulfill the request.

Amazon explains: "A surfing skill with a database of California beaches might be able to both understand and fulfill the request, while one with a database of Hawaiian beaches might only be able to understand it. Based on their responses, Alexa would invoke the skill with the database of California beaches for the customer."

In a bid to maintain quality, the machine learning system will also look at a skill's rating and engagement level before deciding whether to use it or not.

Can Fulfill Intent Request was made available to Alexa developers as a beta on May 30, so it will be a little while before Amazon Echo owners get to see the benefits.

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