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You can now teach Alexa how to do new things—a baby step toward ‘general’ AI

We are still a very long way from a “general” artificial intelligence—a machine that can learn and comprehend any task or concept a human can. But Amazon is taking a small step toward it with a new feature that lets you teach its Alexa personal assistant how to do new things.

Here’s how that might work:

You: Alexa, change bedroom lamp to night-reading mode.

Alexa: I don’t know what night-reading mode means. Can you teach me?

You: It means 50% brightness on the bedroom lamp.

Alexa: Done, and I’ll remember that for next time.

Sounds simple enough, but a lot just happened in Alexa’s brain. It figured out that it didn’t know something, it decided how to ask the user to help it fill the gap in its knowledge, and it managed the back-and-forth with the user to keep moving toward the answer it needed. (Before the user-training feature launched, Alexa would have responded with “Hmm, I don’t know that one” or some variant.)

It can then apply its learning in other settings. If you say, “turn on night-reading mode” while in the living room, Alexa might adjust the reading lamp by the couch to 50% brightness. The assistant remembers what it learns and ties that intelligence to your account, says Prem Natarajan, who heads up Natural Language Understanding for Alexa at Amazon.

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