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How Alexa Gets Her So-Called Skills

Amazon’s Alexa voice platform is getting smarter. At the start of the year, she knew how to do only 7,000 things. Now, she has more than 15,000 so-called skills. These include everything from turning off your lights, to finding a restaurant nearby, to playing NPR.

If you just look at the numbers, Alexa is blowing the competition out of the water. You can voice-activate around 60 apps with Microsoft’s Cortana and several hundreds of third-party apps with Google’s Assistant. But quantity doesn’t always equal quality. Some of Alexa’s “skills” are the butt of jokes (like the Fart Sounds Generator), and a 2017 report from VoiceLabs shows most people don’t use the skills consistently.

The people behind Alexa’s skill explosion are independent coders, like the group gathered recently at a downtown Dallas boot camp hosted by Coding Dojo. Coding Dojo has held several workshops that guide students through the process of developing and certifying an Alexa skill.

Pragati Srivastava is a software engineering student at University of Texas at Dallas. She’s developed an app for Microsoft’s virtual assistant and now wants to set up a music app for the Amazon Echo at her house.

“It’s pretty cool,“ she says. “You can ask about the weather. We normally set alarms, cooking times.”

Also at the boot camp, Ellie Lawrence says learning to code for Alexa could be her segue to a new job.

“When you’re in the technology business, you just can’t fall behind,” she says.

For practice, she plans to program a skill to help keep her plants alive. She’ll connect sensors in her garden to Alexa to trigger a warning if the soil gets too dry.

Amazon has made it really easy to develop a skill in a few hours and most get certified. Adam Marchick, CEO of the research company VoiceLabs, says that’s part of the problem.

“If you look at the 15,000 apps, how many apps are really high quality? A small fraction,” he says.

There are lots of apps reviewers like to make fun of. Among them, Egg Facts, Fart Sounds Generator and Remember Your Keys. That last one reminds you to grab your keys, but only if you remember to ask Alexa to open Remember Your Keys.

It’s the first skill developed by Seattle-based creator Wing Mui. Mui didn’t really expect anyone to download it, and finds it amusing that the skill made the news at all.

According to VoiceLabs research from January, even when people download a skill on Amazon’s Echo or Google Assistant, there’s only a 3 percent chance they’ll open it again after the first week.

Natalie Hereth, PR manager for Amazon Alexa, says no idea is too silly for Alexa. *And we should note here Amazon is an NPR sponsor.

“It’s early days, and we like the fact that developers are experimenting with skills,” Hereth says.

For these skills to gain traction, Marchick says Amazon will need to attract more experienced developers. The company has announced plans tostart paying some top-performing developers, but right now, it mostly offers perks like free devices, T-shirts, and socks.

Dallas-based developer Darian Johnson has created a number of skills for Alexa, including Chess Master.
Credit Courtesy of Darian Johnson
Courtesy of Darian Johnson
Dallas-based developer Darian Johnson has created a number of skills for Alexa, including Chess Master.

Dallas developer Darian Johnson spends his weekends and free time developing skills for Alexa. So far, he’s created a variety of skills: “Virtual Librarian,” “Black History Facts” and “Blood Pressure Log.” He would love to start receiving a check for the most popular one he’s created, called Chess Master. You can play chess against the computer, another person and even ask Alexa to recommend a move.

Johnson says Chess Master is also the most complicated skill he’s built. He jokes there are days he feels like he’s working for Amazon for free.

“But I think I get something out of it, too. I’m learning a lot of new skills,” Johnson says.   

Lauren Silverman was the Health, Science & Technology reporter/blogger at KERA News. She was also the primary backup host for KERA’s Think and the statewide newsmagazine  Texas Standard. In 2016, Lauren was recognized as Texas Health Journalist of the Year by the Texas Medical Association. She was part of the Peabody Award-winning team that covered Ebola for NPR in 2014. She also hosted "Surviving Ebola," a special that won Best Long Documentary honors from the Public Radio News Directors Inc. (PRNDI). And she's won a number of regional awards, including an honorable mention for Edward R. Murrow award (for her project “The Broken Hip”), as well as the Texas Veterans Commission’s Excellence in Media Awards in the radio category.