Siri, watch your back

Alexa finds voice in Massachusetts. Amazon’s increasingly popular personal assistant draws heavily on area’s technology talent.

Associated Press

Alexa, who is the most popular virtual assistant?

Last year proved to be breakout time for Amazon’s answer to Siri. Alexa lives on the company’s Echo smart-speakers, which saw holiday sales in 2016 leap nine times higher than in 2015. They are now installed in more than 8 million homes, according to Consumer Intelligence Research Partners.

Alexa can dim the lights, order a new pair of shoes, play music, or read news headlines , as its owner commands. And although it doesn’t have a Boston accent, Alexa owes a lot of its smarts to the region’s tech sector.

A major portion of the speech and data-science work powering Amazon’s virtual assistant is based at the company’s growing Cambridge offices. Amazon recently added to that footprint by leasing two floors of a new Back Bay office building operated by WeWork.


The increase comes in part because parsing the background noise in a home is no small feat, and Alexa doesn’t always nail it. In one infamous incident last year, Echo owners listening to an NPR report on the device reported that their gadgets twinkled to life when the radio host spoke the device’s “wake word.” Amazon is beefing up its Alexa teams with veterans of Massachusetts’s many pioneering speech companies, including BBN Technologies, Nuance, and Vlingo. That speech talent and additional expertise in data science and machine learning are key to helping Amazon expand its line of in-home personal technology devices. In late April, the company unveiled the Echo Look, a voice-controlled, Internet-connected camera that it says can help people pick outfits and suggest new items to add to their wardrobe.

Try doing that with your old closet mirror.

Curt Woodward is a Globe staff writer. Send comments to magazine@globe.com. Follow us on Twitter @BostonGlobeMag.