An Emotion-Detecting Echo Speaker: Helpful Or Going Too Far?

Alexa, the virtual assistant inside Amazon’s Echo speaker — and its smaller versions — can order you a pizza, but can she tell that you’re upset when she confuses pepperoni with ham? Not yet, but the e-commerce giant is apparently working on giving Alexa the ability to gauge users’ emotions. 

The MIT Technology Review, citing people familiar with Amazon and Alexa, reports that researchers are working on an update that will help Alex detect the emotion in someone’s voice.

The natural-language-processing update will also allow the virtual assistant to connect data about users with requests hurled her way.

According to the MIT Technology Review, this means that Alexa will be able to better craft her responses to users. For example, if it knows that you live in Texas and ask how the Rangers are doing, Alexa will have a better chance of telling you about the Texas Rangers, rather than the New York Rangers.

The purported emotional update will then allow Alexa to correct course if she conducts the wrong task. If she accidentally gives you the score for the NHL game, while you were looking for status of the MLB game, it can respond with “sorry.”

Additionally, the updates will allow Alexa to better hold conversations with users.

“That’s one of the active areas,” the source familiar with Amazon’s research tells the MIT Technology Review. “It is super-vital for the conversation to be magical.”

While there will no doubt be several limitations to the Echo’s ability to gauge users’ emotions, such as canned responses that you receive from other automated systems — “sorry, I didn’t quite get that” — there’s always the possibility that someday in the future Alexa could turn into yet another voice constantly asking “are you okay?”

Amazon’s Alexa May Soon Know How Irritated You Are [MIT Technology Review]