Amazon Alexa's India country manager says it will bring the next billion online through voice

Amazon India's country manager for Alexa devices talks about bringing the next billion people online through voice assistants / Amazon India

Amazon bolstered its presence in India by introducing its cloud-based voice service Alexa last year. Since then, Alexa has further expanded its portfolio of smart home devices by introducing smart home surveillance cameras, air conditioners, smart voice remotes, smart televisions and set-top boxes.

India is a diverse country, where dialect changes in every state. To find out how much impact voice assistants actually will make, particularly in this diverse country, The Drum spoke with Puneesh Kumar, country manager for Alexa Experience and Devices at Amazon India.

Kumar believes that voice assistant will have a massive impact on India. He explains: "Let me take a step back and talk about the vision as why we launched Alexa in India. We started working on Alexa five years ago when we saw certain trends happening in the industry. Being big fans of Star Trek, we have been inspired by the vision of Captain Kirk standing in front of the computer, just talking to it and getting a vox feed out of it. We noticed five years ago that a lot of innovation was happening around machine learning, which was unlocking lot of things that weren't possible earlier. At the same time we were able to see how Amazon Web Services was completely changing the cloud computing paradigm. As a result, you had infinite amount of storage, coupled with machine learning. They were big pillars that were creating tectonic shifts in the technology industry. And to couple that with easy interface like voice, we got the idea of Alexa. A device to which people could just talk."

From that point the opportunity in India was then looked at, he says, because India is so different to other markets.

"There are certain things which are very unique about India. We are one of the most diverse countries in the world, with the most number of dialects and the literacy rate is much lower than the other countries. This means that there is huge amount of the population that hasn't adopted technology," and as to whether this unique approach has worked, "We have made an impact as consumers have taken well to Alexa whether it is ordering food or cab or listen to their favourite song. We are pleasantly surprised with the response we have receive and I believe its going to keep on growing as Alexa is getting smarter day by day."

The number of internet users in India is expected to reach 500 million by the end of this month, according to a report by the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) and Kantar IMRB. Amazon's rival Google has too ventured into the Indian market with its voice assistant, which also aims to bring everyone online in India through its next billion plan.

Kumar is positive that Amazon's voice assistant devices will bring people online as well. He says: "Alexa is there to give people information on anything, from what happened at the Royal wedding to what the weather is like at a certain place. Alexa is there to make the experience of using internet seamless. There will be people who don't have access to smartphones and technology. Consumers don't even need to know how to read and write and just have to speak to the device to have the content surface for them. Alexa is now understanding multiple languages in India like Hindi, Kannada, Tamil, Telugu and Malyalam, so the repertoire of things Alexa can do and understand is only going to keep increasing."

Brands will need more localised content to advertise in India. Amazon earlier collaborated with Ogilvy India to launch its first 360-degree TVC as a category creation exercise and educate customers about Alexa’s several skills, including its ability to understand the Hindi language.

Puneesh believes that localisation is the key to making voice assistants a very convenient and very pleasant experience. He elaborates: "No one wants to hear a voice that is robotic. When you talk about voice, you automatically think that you are interacting with a person. So we have taken a lot of time and effort to think upon how to give personality to Alexa. Her choices and things that she likes have to be very Indian for people in India to relate to her. There were three things we needed to work on with Alexa. First was speech recognition. In India, people have different accents, therefore we needed Alexa to be able to understand that. Secondly, we had to spend lot of time localising Alexa.

"Also, even though today Alexa responds in English, our usage of English is very different. Its not British or American English. When I as an Indian ask 'Alexa, marks', then Alexa has to understand that we are talking about grades. So thirdly, we had to localise a lot the text to speech."

Amazon recently partnered with Embassy Group to unveil Alexa-enabled smart homes in India. With India moving towards a digital age, Amazon localising the experience is not going to be enough.

However, Puneesh believes that in India, every disadvantage is an opportunity waiting to be exploited. He adds: "If people speak multiple languages then there is an opportunity for this voice assistant to help understand multiple dialects and be able to understand the meaning behind it. So it can be a unified force. The affordability is a challenge or a disadvantage, as everybody may not be able to buy a 4,000 or a 10,000 Rs. device. Then we see this as an opportunity. We at Amazon are always thinking about the customer experience and working backwards and for us Alexa is not someone who is restricted to Amazon devices.

"We have created a democratized infrastructure where, through Alexa, any product creator or manufacturer can integrate Alexa voice services into their devices. We have lot of third part providers worldwide who are integrating Alexa voice into their own devices. Also, customers have a variety of options. They are not restricted to buy only Echo family devices from Amazon. That's actually game changing as it gives everybody an opportunity to participate in this shift towards voice-first world."

Amazon is trying to lead this innovation but its knows very clearly that it is not going to win this alone. Innovations works best when it is supported by everyone in the ecosystem and that's what Amazon is aiming to achieve with Alexa.

For more on voice technology, pick up a copy of The Drum's July issue where we speak to Susan Bennett (AKA the voice of Apple’s Siri); find out how AI assistants are being utilised in sectors such as retail, charity, healthcare and education; discover how it is opening up the internet to older generations and the visually impaired; and ask what it means to be 'voice native'.

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