UPDATED 13:35 EST / NOVEMBER 17 2023


Amazon lays off hundreds from Alexa unit amid generative AI refocus

Amazon.com Inc. is letting go hundreds of employees from the business unit that develops its Alexa voice assistant.

Daniel Rausch, the vice president of Amazon’s Alexa and Fire TV unit, disclosed the move today in an internal memo that was published by GeekWire.

Rausch stated that the workforce reduction will see Amazon cut “several hundred” roles. The affected employees are spread across the U.S., Canada, India and several other countries. They will receive a separation payment, transitional health insurance benefits, external job placement support and paid time to find a new position.

Rausch stressed in the memo announcing the layoffs that Alexa continues to see broad use among consumers. According to the executive, users interact with the voice assistant tens of millions of times per hour. The reason for the layoffs, Rausch explained, is that Amazon is redirecting internal resources to enhancing Alexa’s generative artificial intelligence capabilities. 

“We’re shifting some of our efforts to better align with our business priorities, and what we know matters most to customers — which includes maximizing our resources and efforts focused on generative AI,” Rausch wrote.

Amazon debuted the newest generative AI feature addition to Alexa, a capability called Let’s Chat, in September. Currently, users have to say a so-called wake word before every request they make to the voice assistant. Let’s Chat removes that requirement and allows Alexa to take into account information from past inquiries when processing a new user request.

Previously, Amazon introduced a second, more advanced generative AI feature for its Alexa-powered Echo Show smart screens. The new feature allows users to create a short, animated story with a series of natural language prompts. Each story comprises five to 10 sentences along with accompanying illustrations, background music and sound effects.

Going forward, one use case Amazon could prioritize as part of its generative AI roadmap is allowing Alexa to interact with other applications. Rival Google LLC has already gone down that route with Google Assistant. The search giant recently introduced a generative AI version of its voice assistant that can fetch information from Gmail and Google Docs, as well as perform other tasks such as writing travel itineraries. 

The new version of Google Assistant is based on the company’s Bard chatbot. Bard, in turn, is powered by an internally developed large language model called PaLM 2. The model understands more than 100 languages, can process more data at once than Google’s previous-generation neural networks, and has access to a larger knowledge repository.

Photo: Amazon

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