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Alexa goes down the conversational rabbit hole

Onstage at re:Mars this week, Amazon showcased a developing Alexa feature meant to mimic the flow of natural language. Conversation between two humans rarely follows some predefined structure. It goes to strange and unexpected places. One topic segues into another, as participants inject their lived experience.

In a demo, a conversation about trees turns to one about hiking and parks. In the context of the company’s AI, senior vice president and head scientist for Alexa, Rohit Prasad, refers to the phenomenon as “conversation exploration.” It’s not a proper name for a proper feature, exactly. There isn’t a switch that gets flipped to suddenly enable conversations overnight. Rather, it’s part of an evolving notion of how Alexa can interact with users in a more human — or perhaps, more humane — manner.

Smart assistants like Alexa have traditionally provided a much more simplistic question-and-response model. Ask Alexa the ...

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