A version of this article appeared in the Globe’s tech newsletter, Innovation Beat (sign up here).
It’s easier to spot a shooting star flying across the night sky than to perceive larger objects, like a black hole, which exert considerably more pull on the galaxy.
So, too, in covering the Boston tech scene, it’s often easier to get time with the CEO of a hot startup, which may or may not ever become significant, than to get access to the leaders of Big Tech’s local operations. Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Amazon employ thousands of people in the Boston area who are doing interesting and important tech work.
So the other day, I sat down with Rohit Prasad, Amazon’s top senior vice president locally, who also has the title of head scientist for Alexa. Prasad’s title begins to reveal just what’s going on in Amazon’s sprawling offices spread across several buildings in Kendall Square (and soon in more than 1 million square feet of offices in the Seaport District). The company also bases its robotics development in the area.
Whether you’re simply asking Alexa for the weather or using the digital assistant to control a smart home device, the software making it happen comes from Prasad’s team. And they’re planning to make Alexa even more capable.
For one, they’re fixing that annoying requirement that you say “Alexa” every time you make a request, even during a series of related questions. Soon you’ll be able to say “Alexa, join the conversation” and it will respond without the wake word.
They’re also programming the system to incorporate more personal preferences. You’ll be able to tell Alexa that you’re a vegetarian or that you follow the Red Sox, and the system will use that knowledge to inform future responses.
Alexa also will look for patterns. Do you ask for the weather, the news, and then play some music every morning? It will recommend creating a routine that performs all three activities in sequence with a simple trigger like “Alexa, good morning.”
Prasad says as the system gets more capable, it is gaining “ambient intelligence.”
“It is not just about voice ― it’s about intelligence,” Prasad says. The ultimate aim is to give Alexa more common sense. “The AI should learn to do many different tasks jointly versus task being learned independently,” he says.
Amazon is rolling out the new features despite the pandemic’s effect on work patterns. The company announced that it would let employees in many jobs work remotely as long as they’d like. During my visit with Prasad in Kendall Square, Amazon’s offices were mostly empty ― even the long-lasting containers of coffee creamer had gone bad.
Prasad says Amazon’s practice of using written documents to ground discussions in meetings helped the company navigate the shift to remote work. Amazon famously requires presenters to write a memo, typically six pages, outlining new ideas. Attendees are expected to have read the memo ahead of a meeting.
“The discussion always used to be that you hear diverse point of views in the room after you’ve read a common artifact,” he says. “It’s shocking, I mean, you would expect that your invention velocity will go down. But contrary to that belief ... it has been fairly robust.”
So far, the plan to occupy two new towers in the Seaport and hire 3,000 people is still on.
“Of course, with COVID there are minor uncertainties, but our commitment to the area remains immensely strong,” he says. “We are expanding in the Boston area still, we remain committed to it.”
Prasad came to Boston amid the Internet boom more than 20 years ago to work at BBN, one of the firms that spawned the online world we all now inhabit. He joined Amazon in 2013 and still sees Boston as a powerful center for innovation, thanks to the base of universities in the area.
“The reason we are here is fundamentally because of the talent and the kind of talent,” he says. “It’s extremely smart, extremely diverse ... People from all over the world, different races, different upbringing, different economic strata, are here because of the student population.”
So the next time you ask Alexa for something, remember it’s powered from Boston.