Facial recognition is being used in China’s monitoring network

A publicly accessible database managed by a surveillance contractor showed China has used a full suite of AI tools to monitor its Uyghur population in the far west of the country.

Victor Gevers, a cyber security expert and a researcher at the non-profit GDI Foundation, found that a database managed by SenseNets, a Chinese surveillance company, and housed in China Unicom cloud platform, has stored large quantities of tracking data of the residents in the Xinjiang autonomous region in west China. The majority of monitored are the Uyghur ethnic group. The data covered a total number of nearly 2.6 million people (2,565,724 to be precise), including personal information like their ID card details (issue & expire dates, sex, ethnic group, home address, birthday, photo) as well employer details, and the locations they have been tracked (using facial recognition) in the last 24 hours, during which time a total of 6,680,348 records were registered, according to Gevers.

Neither the scope nor the level of detail of the monitoring should be a surprise, given the measures used by China in that part of the country over the last two years. If there is anything embarrassing for the Chinese authorities and their contractors in this story, it will be the total failure of data security: the database was not protected at all. By the time Gevers notified the administrators at SenseNets, it had been accessible to anyone for at least half a year, according to the access log. The database has since been secured, opened, and secured again. Gevers also found out that the database was built on a pirate edition of Windows Server 2012. Police stations, hotels, and other service and business establishments are also found to have connected to the database.

This is a classic example of human errors defeating security systems. Not too long ago, Jeff Bezos of Amazon sent intimate pictures to his female companion, which ended up in the wrong hands. This led to the BBC’s quip that Bezos was the weak link in cybersecurity for the world’s leading cloud service provider.

Like other technologies, facial recognition can be used by overbearing governments for monitoring purposes, breaking all privacy protection. But it can also do tremendous good. EU citizens travelling between the UK and the Schengen Area have long got used to having their passports read by a machine then their faces matched by a camera. The AI technologies behind the experience have vastly simplified and expediated the immigration process. But, sometimes, for some reason, the machine may fail to recognise a face. In that case, there is always an immigration officer at the desk to do manual check.

Facial recognition, coupled with other technologies, for example blockchain, can also improve the efficiency in industries like cross-border logistics. The long border between Sweden and Norway is largely open despite that a passenger or cargo vehicle travelling from one country to another would be technically moving between inside the EU (Sweden) and outside of it (Norway). According to an article in The Economist, the frictionless transit needs digitalisation of documentation (of goods as well as on people), facial recognition (of drivers), sensors on the border (to read code on the driver’s mobile phone), and automatic number-plate recognition (of the vehicles).

In cases like these, facial recognition, and AI in general, should be lauded. What the world should be on alert to is how the data is being used and who has access to it.

 

Big Apple says no to Amazon

The PR bout between Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and Democratic Congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has been settled, with the internet giant cancelling plans to open a New York office.

HQ2, as it had come to be known, was supposed to be Amazon’s attempt to expand its corporate footprint, opening a new, secondary, headquarters outside of Seattle. After a year-long search, the decision was made to split duties between Virginia and New York, with each eventually playing home to 25,000 employees promised Amazon. It seemed like an attractive proposition, but political and residential opposition killed the idea.

“After much thought and deliberation, we’ve decided not to move forward with our plans to build a headquarters for Amazon in Long Island City, Queens,” the company said in a statement. “For Amazon, the commitment to build a new headquarters requires positive, collaborative relationships with state and local elected officials who will be supportive over the long-term.

“While polls show that 70% of New Yorkers support our plans and investment, a number of state and local politicians have made it clear that they oppose our presence and will not work with us to build the type of relationships that are required to go forward with the project we and many others envisioned in Long Island City.”

Amazon has been on a year-long road trip to figure out which city would effectively bribe it the most to become the home of the next corporate headquarters. The ‘bribe’ would come in the form of tax incentives and relief for investing in a region, and while this might have looked like a coup for New York and the district of Queens, there has been political opposition.

Ocasio-Cortez was the spearhead, objecting to the billions of dollars’ worth of benefit the internet giant would realise, all at the expense of the tax payer. Opponents to the development also questioned how much of a benefit Amazon would be to the city, as many locals would not be qualified for the newly created positions.

Although there are arguments on both sides of the equation, you have to wonder whether this is a short-sighted move from a politically naive representative. Firstly, New York has not shown itself to be particularly welcoming to technology, the fastest growing segment of the global economy. And secondly, just because people are not qualified for these roles today, doesn’t mean the generations of tomorrow won’t be qualified.

Starting with the first point, many cities across the US are attempting to make their own region appear more attractive to technology companies. This is always for the same reason; politicians and bureaucrats recognise the growth potential of the technology industry and the greater impact this can have on the city. In taking such a strong and aggressive stance against Bezos, New York has given itself a slight technophobe image.

Of course, what is worth noting is the city should not be taken advantage of. This is what many feel Amazon has done, using the immense promise of jobs, investment and prosperity to bleed the city dry. Whether you look at the tax incentives as a pragmatic move or abuse of the system depends on your political swing, but there are fair arguments on both side of the equation.

The second point of opposition is down to the jobs which will be created. Many have suggested these would not be suitable for the local population of Queens, instead outsiders would stream into the area, potentially bringing with them higher house prices and pretentious coffee shops. There is certainly some validity to this position, though you have to wonder whether this is short-sighted.

The first generation might not be the most qualified, but in bringing a new type of job to the area, future generations have another target to aim for. Companies like Amazon also like to run initiatives like coding clubs in local schools, offering young students an opportunity to learn a future-proofed skill which might not be available to them otherwise. There is also secondary employment brought to the district because of the presence of Amazon.

Amazon is also a leader is the quickly prospering field of artificial intelligence. Although engineering and innovation for AI would almost certainly be based in Silicon Valley, the presence of such a massive office in New York would allow the city to create a hub of excellence for AI. Considering the role this emerging segment will play in the future, this is potentially a massive missed opportunity.

There are arguments on both sides of the equation, but we believe this is a short-sighted campaign of opposition. More effort should have been made to renegotiate the terms, as much more is lost than gained with New York snubbing Amazon.

Mesh wifi goes mainstream as Amazon acquires Eero

Amazon’s push into the connected home took another step with the acquisition of mesh wifi specialist Eero.

Mesh wifi has been put forward as the next generation of wifi router technology, which uses multiple nodes to not only resolve coverage issues but also create an electronic map of the home such that your interaction with the network can have a positional element. Qualcomm has been bigging up mesh for a while and Samsung has gone big on it in the US, where it seems to have the greatest consumer adoption.

Eero seems to be one of the more established players over there, so its acquisition by Amazon has raised some eyebrows. It’s perceived as a clever move by Amazon to augment its connected home drive that is focused around its Alexa smart speaker devices. On the flip side there is some disquiet at the prospect of a popular independent tech brand being hoovered up by one of the giants.

“We are incredibly impressed with the Eero team and how quickly they invented a wifi solution that makes connected devices just work,” said Dave Limp, SVP of Amazon Devices and Services. “We have a shared vision that the smart home experience can get even easier, and we’re committed to continue innovating on behalf of customers.”

“From the beginning, Eero’s mission has been to make the technology in homes just work,” echoed Nick Weaver, CEO of Eero. “We started with wifi because it’s the foundation of the modern home. Every customer deserves reliable and secure wifi in every room. By joining the Amazon family, we’re excited to learn from and work closely with a team that is defining the future of the home, accelerate our mission, and bring eero systems to more customers around the globe.”

Coincidentally another major mesh specialist – Plume – has just announced a partnership with UK ISP TalkTalk, to launch some kind of invitation-only early access to its technology. “Since launching Plume in the US, we’ve received a tremendous amount of interest from the UK,” said Sri Nathan, Head of Business Development at Plume. “We are thrilled to deliver a new level of personalisation, connectivity, and security in the home to TalkTalk subscribers.”

The migration of mesh technology into the mainstream is likely to prompt a fresh round of hand-wringing about data privacy. Amazon is already installing listening devices into people’s homes, now it will be offering a wifi system that knows where you are all the time. People are going to get freaked out by the prospect of a tech giant having access to so much personal information, so Amazon has created a fresh PR challenge with this move.

Amazon made obscene amounts of money in 2018

Internet giant Amazon made $232.9 billion last year, which was up 31% from the previous year.

The increase was almost exactly the same percentage at the previous year, indicating Amazon’s impressive growth is showing no sign of slowing. Its Q4 revenue growth was a mere 20% to $72.4 billion, but net income was up 58% to $3 billion, which helped amazon reach $10.1 billion net income for the full year, more than triple what it managed in 2017.

By far the main reason Amazon is suddenly so much more profitable is AWS – its cloud services division. Considering its origins as a way to monetize surplus datacentre capacity, it’s especially impressive that this division raked in $25.6 billion last year, yielding an operating income of $7.3 billion. For some reason CEO Jeff Bezos chose to bang on about Amazon’s voice UI platform Alexa instead in his earnings comments.

“Alexa was very busy during her holiday season,” he said. “Echo Dot was the best-selling item across all products on Amazon globally, and customers purchased millions more devices from the Echo family compared to last year. The number of research scientists working on Alexa has more than doubled in the past year, and the results of the team’s hard work are clear.

“In 2018, we improved Alexa’s ability to understand requests and answer questions by more than 20% through advances in machine learning, we added billions of facts making Alexa more knowledgeable than ever, developers doubled the number of Alexa skills to over 80,000, and customers spoke to Alexa tens of billions more times in 2018 compared to 2017. We’re energized by and grateful for the response, and you can count on us to keep working hard to bring even more invention to customers.”

Great, thanks for that Jeff. One other business segment that’s worth noting is appropriately enough, ‘other’. This covers advertising – in this case premium positioning on the Amazon site, especially for Prime subscribers of which there are over 100 million – and it doubled its revenue in the quarter. Thankless investors still drove Amazon’s share price down by 5%, ironically enough, after it announced it expects to increase its investment spend this year.

Alexa turns to HERE to crack the car market

Amazon is collaborating with navigation platform HERE in order to get its Alexa voice UI into the car of the future.

The announcement was made at CES 2019 and involves the integration of Alexa into the HERE navigation and location platform, thus giving it a voice UI dimension. This seems pretty sensible as in-car infotainment systems are already too complex to be safely operated via a touch screen, meaning cars are the perfect setting for enhanced voice interactions.

“The in-vehicle user experience is rapidly changing, and automakers today have the opportunity to deliver the next generation of services that maximize the vehicle’s utility as the ultimate connected device and providing consumers with the user experience they expect,” said Edzard Overbeek, CEO of HERE Technologies, before pausing for breath. “Our work with Amazon will drive a truly differentiated and delightful user experience, from the home to the car, to where you want to go, and what you need to know.”

In a parallel announcement HERE launched a new version of its platform called HERE Navigation On Demand, which is positioned as ‘The world’s first SaaS navigation and connected service solution for vehicles’. It seems to use the core SaaS concept of allowing OEMs and their customers to easily cherry-pick the aspects of the suite their individual needs dictate.

“HERE Navigation On Demand is the reinvention of in-car navigation for the era of the connected vehicle,” said Overbeek. “Our solution gives automakers the agility and flexibility they need to deliver the most competitive navigation experiences on the market. Moreover, it provides them the freedom to create their own business models that support their unique strategies.”

“We’re thrilled to be working with HERE to integrate Alexa with its in-vehicle navigation software,” added Ned Curic, VP of Alexa Auto at Amazon. “Because Alexa is integrated directly into the experience, automakers using HERE Navigation On-Demand can easily provide customers with an intuitive, voice-first experience in the car, and provide richer, more useful voice interactions at home and on the go.”

The in-car infotainment platform was has been fermenting for some time but it could be set to escalate. Google announced a big partnership back in September of last year and presumably isn’t keen to share the dashboard with HERE and Alexa. Forcing OEMs to make a long-term commitment to one platform probably isn’t a good idea however, which is why HERE may have been clever to adopt the SaaS model.

Share price drops for both Amazon and Google after quarterlies

Despite reporting quarterly numbers most companies would kill for Amazon and Alphabet share prices dropped by 8.6% and 5% respectively due to investor disappointment.

More than anything else it shows the high demands of investors but also the confidence which is being placed in the internet giants. With Amazon reporting a revenue increase of 29% to $56.6 billion for the quarter, while Google parent company Alphabet reported $33.7 billion, up 21%, the expectations are certainly high.

Starting with Amazon, the revenue increase of 29% paled in comparison to the more than 10X lift in net income to $2.9 billion. While this would be a regular cash bonanza for most companies around the world, sales guidance between $66.5 billion and $72.5 billion for final quarter were lower than what the market wanted to hear. The more coy guidance for Amazon’s busiest quarter resulted in the 8.6% drop, after confidence during the day sent stock up 7%.

In Google’s HQ the story was slightly different. Revenues of $33.7 billion, up 21%, and net income of $9.1 billion, compared to $6.7 billion in 2017. Shares were down 5%, following a 4.4% rise across the day, after sales figures did not hit the expected heights. The last three months have been a tough period for investors to swallow with various scandals dropping share price by 8.8% over the last three months.

Of course, it wasn’t all bad news. The cloud unit for both businesses is continuing to rack up revenues with AWS up 45% to $6.7 billion across the quarter and Google’s other revenues segment, which features cloud up 29% to $4.6 billion. Encouragingly for both, Gartner estimates the worldwide public cloud services market is projected to grow 17% percent in 2019 to total $206.2 billion, up from $175.8 billion in 2018. IaaS is set to get the largest boost, forecast to grow 27.6% in 2019 to reach $39.5 billion. With so many businesses around the world citing a cloud-first approach, it’s amazing to think only 10% of workloads have been moved into the cloud.

The relatively new venture into the world of smart speakers and virtual assistants is proving to be a continued success story as well. For Amazon, the number of Alexa-compatible smart home devices has quintupled to more than 20,000 devices from 3,500, while the team have also started to launch new products such as a smart home security solution (Alexa Guard), and Alexa is expanding what it can give updates on as well, such sports with predictions, live streams, cooking instructions and maths homework. For Google. the Assistant has expanded to 20 languages and 76 countries, while the devices with screens will help YouTube business, which is attempting to blend in more direct response adverts as well as branding to its proposition.

There will of course be short-term wins for the pair in this space, but this is a long-term bet. Once the idea has been adopted by the mass market, the opportunities to make money through third-party relationships will be quite remarkable. Search revenues can be moved into the voice domain (effectively anywhere) and look how profitable search has been for Google. This is only one way to make money, but both Amazon and Google are putting themselves in a remarkably strong position for the future.

Both businesses might have suffered in the last 24 hours but they are still in incredibly dominant positions. The cloud units still have incredible growth potential, while the smart speaker ecosystem is starting to become a reality. For Google, the is delivering amazing profitability but sales growth does seem to be slowing slightly. Amazon is delivering on the North American market but the business is not as effective on the international scene, posting a loss of $385 million.

There are issues, but these are nothing compared to the billions being raked in and the growth potential in new, lucrative markets.

Alibaba Cloud opened two data centres in London

The e-commerce giant Alibaba is challenging Amazon and Microsoft in cloud service by adding London to its global data centre map.

If anything can indicate that the world is still confident in the UK as a business hub, amidst all the confusions over deal or no deal of Brexit, new investment from Alibaba can certainly do. The cloud service division of the e-commerce giant, Alibaba Cloud, announced on Monday that it is opening two data centres in London.

“Our decision on the location is driven by the rapidly growing customer demand in the U.K. The United Kingdom is one of the fastest growing European markets for Alibaba Cloud,” said an Alibaba spokesperson. “We are also working with many global and local partners to make sure we are offering best-in-class technologies, services and consulting to customers.”

Among the services the data centres will provide include a so-called “elastic computing”, which is a dynamic system to manage traffic spikes in the network, as well as deliver application services and big data analytics. Alibaba Cloud’s UK clients come from sectors like retail, finance, media, education, research, and logistics, and include public companies like the software maker SDL and the B2B media and event company Ascential.

Cloud service has become a key battlefield for the webscale companies and are clearly delivering results for the market leaders. Over 60% of Amazon’s operating income was from AWS, its cloud service division, in the first half of 2018, while Azure has been the most stellar performer among all Microsoft products.

Meanwhile cloud services have also attracted unwelcome following. According to a report by PwC, “Red Apollo”, a hacking group based in China, launched a series of sustained cyber-attacks last year, specifically targeting cloud service providers. The logic goes that, if they could break the defence of a major cloud service, they would be able to spread spying tools and malware to all the companies on these outsourcing services.

London joins Frankfurt to form Alibaba Cloud’s network in Europe. By the time the new data centres are up and running the company will have 52 data centres sites in 19 regions for its cloud service.

Amazon, Supermicro and Apple call BS on Chinese spying sting – someone is lying

Amazon, Supermicro and Apple have released statements denying they have ever found any malicious microchips on their hardware calling into questions the validity of Chinese espionage claims.

Yesterday Bloomberg pulled back the curtain on an apparent three year-old US government into one of the most intrusive and intricate espionage campaigns, fuelled by the Chinese government. Should the claims be proven true, it would certainly add weight to the political paranoia which has been whipping the anti-China rhetoric into a frenzy, though the major players have denied all knowledge of the malicious microchips and the resulting investigation.

“As we shared with Bloomberg BusinessWeek multiple times over the last couple months, this is untrue,” said Steve Schmidt, Chief Information Security Officer at Amazon. “At no time, past or present, have we ever found any issues relating to modified hardware or malicious chips in SuperMicro motherboards in any Elemental or Amazon systems. Nor have we engaged in an investigation with the government.”

“Supermicro has never found any malicious chips, nor been informed by any customer that such chips have been found,” Supermicro said in a statement. “The manufacture of motherboards in China is not unique to Supermicro and is a standard industry practice. Nearly all systems providers use the same contract manufacturers.”

“Over the course of the past year, Bloomberg has contacted us multiple times with claims, sometimes vague and sometimes elaborate, of an alleged security incident at Apple,” an Apple statement reads. “Each time, we have conducted rigorous internal investigations based on their inquiries and each time we have found absolutely no evidence to support any of them. We have repeatedly and consistently offered factual responses, on the record, refuting virtually every aspect of Bloomberg’s story relating to Apple.”

While the entire saga is now a bit hazy, one thing is clear, someone is lying and misleading the general public.

Would China compromise ‘Workshop of the World’ position?

It is not difficult to believe the Chinese government would conduct such campaigns. It is generally accepted the Chinese government monitors the activities and communications of its own citizens, therefore it is not a huge stretch of the imagination to believe it would do so for foreign countries. But, would the Chinese government put its valuable position as the ‘Workshop of the World’?

With roughly 75% of smartphones and 90% of PCs manufactured in the country, any accusations of espionage would certainly force companies to reassess their supply chain. What company would buy hardware if they knew the potential for data breaches? It would be commercial suicide. China surely knows this, but it depends on what it places more importance on; securing intelligence from foreign governments and multinational corporations, or maintaining stability for a very lucrative industry for the country.

This is not to say they wouldn’t, but it would have to accept it would be sacrificing an important and profitable role in the global supply chain, one which it has worked hard to dominate.

Amazon, Supermicro and Apple clearly have a lot to lose

Another denial here is nothing which should come as a surprise. Should there have been a confirmation, the trio would haemorrhage customers.

Amazon AWS’ government business is a big earner, but how many would trust the services if there was a threat of espionage. The same could be said of corporate clients who are incredibly protective of trade secrets. Supermicro manufactures motherboards for more than 900 customers around the world, clearly this would be incredibly damaging to its reputation. For Apple, and Amazon as well, the PR damage for the consumer business could be a disaster. Consumers would be very wary, which combined with the high-prices Apple tends to charge, could possibly turn the public to other brands.

Each company has a lot to lose by admitting it has been compromised. There was of course going to be a denial, especially considering this investigation has not been confirmed by the government. If it does turn out to be true, the trio can simply state they were under non-disclosure agreements and a denial was necessary for national security, even if it was a lie.

A convenient revelation for the US government

Just as President Trump is going on the offensive against the Chinese government with tariffs and company bans, the story emerges. To say it is convenient timing is somewhat of an understatement.

Just last month, Trump upped the ante on the Chinese trade war by introducing tariffs on another $200 billion of imports. This adds to the initial $50 billion which was announced earlier in the year. With the price of imports increasing, and the option of domestic manufacture more expensive, the price of certain consumer goods will soon begin to rise. Trump will soon need to justify to US citizens why it is important to swallow these price increases, and an espionage scandal would certainly fit the bill.

Another interesting aspect is on the 5G side of things. With Huawei banned from any meaningful deployment or contracts, the risk is reduced competition which could potential lead to increased prices and slower deployment. Ghost stories about the naughty Chinese will only get the government so far, Trump will soon need a concrete reason for banning Huawei and ZTE from the fray. The malicious microchips provide justification here as well.

Not everyone can be right

Right now the validity of the claims is hazy. There are of course strong arguments for all, some suggesting they are telling the truth and some as evidence of lies, but right now, who knows.

With the intelligence community and the White House remaining quiet, rumours will continue to swirl. Until this confirmation or denial for the investigation is unveiled, the conspiracy theorists will be typing away. Of course, a confirmation or denial will not stop the conspiracy theorists, but it will at least provide some clarity for the rest of us.

Maybe the Chinese espionage rhetoric is more than political hot air

Evidence has reportedly been found of China spying on more than 30 US companies, suggesting the anti-China rhetoric might be more than political posturing.

To date, little hard evidence has been displayed in the public domain regarding Chinese espionage, but that might be about to change. According to Bloomberg, a three-year old investigation has uncovered tiny microchips nestling on the motherboards of servers used not only in private corporations, but Department of Defense data centres, the CIA’s drone operations, and the onboard networks of Navy warships. These chips can be traced down the supply chain to a Chinese subcontractor used by SuperMicro.

While espionage has focused on locating and exploiting vulnerabilities in software in recent years, compromising hardware can be more effective. It is more difficult to do, but due to the life-cycle of these products, it can be longer until the issue is uncovered. Compromising hardware can be done in two ways; firstly, devices can be manipulated when on-transit between the supplier and the customer, or the nefarious activities can be conducted at the beginning of the manufacturing process. This is an example of the latter.

The microchips were first discovered after Amazon sought to acquire a company called Elemental. Elemental makes software for compressing massive video files and formatting them for different devices, but also provides expensive servers for customers installed on their sites to handle the video compression. These servers were assembled by SuperMicro, which in turn outsourced some processes to the Chinese subcontractor. These microchips allowed the controller to create stealth doorway into any network that had servers hooked up to it.

To conduct this sort of espionage is incredibly difficult. Not only does the microchip need to be small enough to avoid detection, and powerful enough to perform the desired actions, implanting the device would require an intimate knowledge of the products design. Considering how much of the worlds telecommunications manufacturing is done in China, the country is in an incredibly unique position to master the complex and intricate task. Sources states the microchips were inserted by operatives from a unit of the People’s Liberation Army, the armed forces of the People’s Republic of China and Communist Party of China.

Amazon has stated it had no knowledge of such a saga, though Bloomberg notes this is contradicted by its own sources. While the scale of such espionage activities are unknown for the moment, it is believed more than 30 companies could have been victims, including Apple which had planned to purchase servers from SuperMicro as part of the companies data centre expansion plans.

For the US government, this might just prove to be the justification it needs to chase Chinese companies off the shores. It has been battling to rid the country of Huawei and ZTE, though as little evidence has been released to the general public, a sceptic might suggest this was little more than anti-communist propaganda.

Unfortunately, this might simply compound the pressure which is being applied to China, instead of creating a resilient security framework. A whitepaper from the Rural Broadband Alliance entitled Domain5 suggests a supply chain can be compromised at any point and concentrating on one country might not be the best solution. Operatives are capable of infiltrating a manufacturing plant, in theory, irrelevant as to where it is, therefore concentrating too intently on one country might weaken the security protocols elsewhere.

This should not undermine what is perhaps the most damning evidence of Chinese espionage in recent years however. Various intelligence committees and sub-committees have pointed the finger of dodginess at China for years, though this is the most compelling evidence which we have seen.

Alexa is starting to turn into a genuinely helpful assistant

Amazon has unveiled a host of new features and skills for its Alexa virtual assistant, edging the living room closer to the intelligent dream we’ve all been promised.

While you cannot argue with the gimmicky entertainment brought by virtual assistants, you have to wonder whether it is anything more than five minutes of entertainment or making our lives easier in the very smallest (and often irrelevant) of ways. The new features and skills released by Amazon are starting to add some clarity to the smart home as we all imagine it from watching too many re-runs of Back to the Future 2.

“The Alexa service is always getting smarter, whether you’re using the Echo you bought three years ago or an Echo Show you buy tomorrow,” said said Tom Taylor, Senior VP of Amazon Alexa. “We have thousands of engineers and scientists inventing on behalf of customers, and today we’re excited to introduce even more features to help make customers’ lives simpler, safer, and more convenient.

“Soon customers will be able to manage their email, easily secure their home, watch the shows they love on Echo Show, and make their daily routines more productive – all just by asking Alexa.”

Right now virtual assistants are very limited in the way they work. This is partly due to customers not utilising the capabilities to full potential, though the breadth of features and skills does need to be fleshed out. It might be cruel to point the finger at Amazon, it is still early days after all, but with the big promises made in advertisements, the virtual assistants are a bit drab. That said, some of the new features do look pretty good. The difference is underlying interaction with other applications and features.

Take the new location based reminders. It’s a simple idea, but linking reminders up with GPS adds value. How many times have you walked home from the tube station, only to realise you forgot to buy peas when you are half-way through cooking your dinner. Now you can ask Alexa to remind you to pick up peas, post a letter, drop off the dry cleaning or buying a last minute birthday present, when you’re passing by the relevant establishment.

The routines is another area which been improved as well. This is an interesting feature which can be adapted to each individual. The morning playlist might depend on the day for instance, or lights are triggered depending on motion and your routine. Both of these examples take the virtual assistant away from the simple command-action scenario and factor in other variables which are not dependent on proactive actions from the user. It is actually starting to become smart.

Later in the year you’ll start to see some even more interesting features with Alexa actually making sensible suggestions depending on your actions and commands. For example, if you activate the bedtime routine by saying ‘Good night Alexa’, the white noise playlist will kick in, and Alexa might ask you whether you want it to switch off the living room light you left on. Features like this will make the virtual assistant much more than a gimmick.

The next step will be deeper integration with other applications such as Outlook calendars. When Alexa prompts you to change your alarm the night before because it has spotted an early morning meeting, it’ll start to be a genuine assistant. One step further would be linking to weather and travel update services so it can proactively change the alarm in the middle of the night if it decides your commute will take longer than it usually should.

The promise of virtual assistants has been very glorious, and so far it hasn’t met the expectations. But updates like this are making Alexa an genuinely helpful and interesting proposition.