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Exclusive: Amazon’s Alexa begins crowdsourcing answers to common questions

Smartphones settle a lot of dinner table debates nowadays. We argue about this or that, until somebody finally pops out a phone and Googles it. It really takes the fun out of being an adamant know-it-all who frequently turns out to be wrong.

Doing these little fact checks is even easier using a voice assistant. In fact, asking questions is one of the main uses for digital assistants like Alexa, Google Assistant, or Apple’s Siri. The problem is there’s just no way a digital assistant can know the answer to every question under the sun. So Amazon is going to crowdsource the answers to some of them.

The company is opening a new program–called Alexa Answers–in which it will invite some Alexa users to help answer questions. It’s something similar to the way Amazon shoppers help answer common questions under product listings in the marketplace.

“While Alexa can answer the vast majority of questions customers are asking every day,” writes Amazon VP of Alexa Information Bill Barton in a blog post today, “every once in a while, customers throw curve balls at us with questions like ‘Where was Barbara Bush buried?’ or ‘Who wrote the score for Lord of the Rings?’ . . . or ‘Where do bats go in the winter?’”

- Exclusive: Amazon’s Alexa begins crowdsourcing answers to common questions
The Questions Feed page at the Alexa Answers website.

Actually, Amazon has been running an internal beta of the program over the past month. Amazon employees (Amazon isn’t saying how many) added more than 100,000 question responses, which have been given to real Alexa users more than a million times, the company says.

Now real users will start contributing answers. Amazon will start sending out invitations to participants today. Those who get an invite (Amazon declined to say how many that will be) will be directed to a special Alexa Answers website, where they can log in with their Amazon credentials to see lists of available questions (organized by subject area) and choose which ones they want to answer. The questions that show up at the Alexa Answers site are ones that lots of Alexa users have asked, but for which the assistant currently has no answer. Consumers have to answer the questions in 300 characters or less–this is not Wikipedia. After a question has been answered it will disappear from the site, Amazon says.

When a user submits their written answer, the information is turned into a voice response that can be spoken by Alexa. The assistant will say “According to an Amazon customer…” before saying the user-provided answer.

Amazon says Alexa users will be able to vote answers up or down as a measure of their accuracy and usefulness. Answers that get too many down votes will be removed from Alexa’s knowledge base.

“Our vision has always been that Alexa will be able to answer all questions in all forms, from anywhere in the world,” writes Amazon’s Barton.

As the Alexa Answers program expands to more people, the company may have a reasonable shot at approaching its goal.

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