Amazon aims to make Alexa assistant bigger part of users’ lives

An overhauled Echo Dot smart speaker boasts much-improved sound and design while keeping the $50 price tag of the original. (Getty Images/AFP)
Updated 21 September 2018
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Amazon aims to make Alexa assistant bigger part of users’ lives

  • Alexa has gotten smarter, more conversational and even intuitive during the past year as teams at Amazon work hard on getting the digital assistant to better understand people
  • Alexa uses artificial intelligence to identify patterns in the lives of users, factoring in habits, weather, time of year and more

SEATTLE: From the kitchen to the car, Amazon on Thursday sought to make its Alexa digital assistant and online services a bigger part of people’s lives with an array of new products and partnerships.
Updates to the Internet giant’s Alexa-infused Echo smart speakers will allow them to tend to microwave cooking and even have “hunches” regarding what users may want or have forgotten.
When Alexa is told “corn on the cob,” a digital Echo speaker starts an AmazonBasics microwave oven in a faux home demonstration room, setting the preferred time and voicing what it is doing.
But when asked to add 30 seconds, Alexa paused and then started to play songs by the band “Thirty Seconds to Mars.”
Such misunderstandings are routine enough with smart speakers that they have become fodder for humor, and even cropped up while Amazon devices and services senior vice president David Limp showed off new devices in a nearby building a short time earlier.
Alexa has gotten smarter, more conversational and even intuitive during the past year as teams at Amazon work hard on getting the digital assistant to better understand people, according to Limp.Alexa is even developing a personality, complete with a favorite pet or beer.
It has also learned to understand whispers, responding in equally hushed tones in a feature to be rolled out in the coming weeks.
Amazon on Thursday teased a coming feature called Alexa Hunches that is designed to infuse the digital assistant with intuition. For example, when a user bids Alexa a good night, it might respond by mentioning they forgot to lock a door.
Alexa uses artificial intelligence to identify patterns in the lives of users, factoring in habits, weather, time of year and more. To know what is happening with other smart devices in a home, the Echo speaker needs to be connected to them.
Amazon recently passed the 20,000 mark for smart home devices made by the Seattle-based company or partners.
“We are really at a tipping point for the smart home,” Limp said while unveiling a cornucopia of new devices.
An overhauled Echo Dot smart speaker boasts much-improved sound and design while keeping the $50 price tag of the original.
Amazon added Echo equivalents of stereo components for home sound systems, along with improvements to its online music service, with partners including Spotify, Pandora, and Deezer.
Limp unveiled a “frustration free setup” platform intended to grow into a framework that any smart device maker can use to make getting gadgets to talk to Alexa as easy as plugging them into an outlet.
“That is not going to happen overnight,” Limp said. “As we imagine a future that has thousands of these devices in your home, this is going to become absolutely essential.”
And, of course, there was the $60 microwave, which Limp contended was a strong test because of how much microwaves interfere with wireless connectivity used by devices to communicate.
A freshly announced Alexa Guard service synchronizes with Echo speakers in the home and security cameras from Amazon-owned smart doorbell maker Ring.
When Echo speakers are set to guard mode, they listen for breaking glass or the sound of alarms from smoke or carbon dioxide detectors and send alerts to smartphones or even security companies.
Ring cameras can also be connected to Echo devices with screens, letting people see who has come calling, demonstrations showed.
A new Echo Show device boasted twice the screen display area as its predecessor, and Fire TV Recast that acts as a digital recorder for traditional television broadcasts.
Not satisfied with being built into new cars, Alexa will be able to work in older models with an Echo Auto device that can be affixed to dashboards and reach the Internet through smartphones.
“Amazon launched today what I believe is the industry’s largest assortment of home automation products and added meaningful improvements to its services,” said analyst Patrick Moorhead of Moor Insights and Strategy.
“The company once again separated itself again in the smart home space from both Google and Apple by adding new devices and capabilities.”


Warning issued over attacks on Internet infrastructure

ICANN headquarters in Los Angeles. (Supplied)
Updated 23 February 2019
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Warning issued over attacks on Internet infrastructure

  • The list of targets included website registrars and Internet service providers, particularly in the Middle East

SAN FRANCISCO: Key parts of the Internet infrastructure face large-scale attacks that threaten the global system of web traffic, the Internet’s address keeper warned Friday.
The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) declared after an emergency meeting “an ongoing and significant risk” to key parts of the infrastructure that affects the domains on which websites reside.
“They are going after the Internet infrastructure itself,” ICANN chief technology officer David Conrad told AFP.
“There have been targeted attacks in the past, but nothing like this.”
The attacks date back as far as 2017 but have sparked growing concerns from security researchers in recent weeks, which prompted the special meeting of ICANN.
The malicious activity targets the Domain Name System or DNS which routes traffic to intended online destinations.
ICANN specialists and others say these attacks have a potential to snoop on data along the way, sneakily send the traffic elsewhere or enable the attackers to impersonate or “spoof” critical websites.
“There isn’t a single tool to address this,” Conrad said, as ICANN called for an overall hardening of web defenses.
US authorities issued a similar warning last month about the DNS attacks.
“This is roughly equivalent to someone lying to the post office about your address, checking your mail, and then hand delivering it to your mailbox,” the US Department of Homeland Security said in a recent cybersecurity alert.
“Lots of harmful things could be done to you (or the senders) depending on the content of that mail.”

DNSpionage attacks might date back to at least 2017, according to FireEye senior manager of cyber espionage analysis Ben Read.
The list of targets included website registrars and Internet service providers, particularly in the Middle East.
“We’ve seen primarily targeting of email names and passwords,” Read said of what is being dubbed “DNSpionage.”
“There is evidence that it is coming out of Iran and being done in support of Iran.”
ICANN held an emergency meeting and is putting out word to website and online traffic handlers to ramp up security or leave users vulnerable to being tricked into trusting the wrong online venues.
DNSpionage hackers appeared intent on stealing account credentials, such as email passwords, in Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates, according to Crowdstrike cybersecurity firm vice president of intelligence Adam Meyers.
Similar attacks took place in Europe and other parts of the Middle East, with targets including governments, intelligence services, police, airlines, and the oil industry, cybersecurity specialists said.
“You definitely need knowledge of how the Internet works you and have to handle a lot of traffic being directed to you,” Meyers said of the DNSpionage hackers.
“With that access, they could temporarily break portions of how the Internet works. They chose to intercept and spy on folks.”