When it comes to virtual assistants with speech recognition capabilities, Apple’s Siri may have paved the way, but Alexa by Amazon is the way of the future. By allowing users to interface with a myriad of smart devices as well as the wider Internet, Alexa frees small business owners from some of the tedium involved in managing their enterprises—enhancing their prospects for success across the board.

Alexa, Siri, Google Assistant, Microsoft’s Cortana and other virtual assistants all operate similarly. They accept vocalized input from users and then apply sophisticated algorithms to parse what was said. After running the speech through various levels of processing, they gain an understanding of not just the specific words employed, but the intention behind them. This lets these remarkable pieces of software act to accurately fulfill users’ wishes even if commands are unclear or subject to multiple interpretations.

There’s no Alexa device per se; rather, the program ships standard with the Amazon Echo speaker system, the Amazon Fire TV digital media player and several other devices by Amazon and a few third parties. Because the hardware that Alexa is attached to performs useful functions separately from being able to understand human speech, buyers don’t feel that they’re spending their scarce resources specifically for a voice recognition system. It is instead an added feature of the merchandise.

By engaging with Alexa, you can reorder office supplies, manage your schedule, set timers and alerts, and conduct a wide range of other activities to make your business operate more smoothly. It’s currently capable of thousands of what are called “skills,” and more are being continuously added.

The Alexa Skills Kit allows regular people to develop new skills for Alexa. JustEat for example has set up a voice ordering interface and order tracker for its clients, and there’s a skill for Uber that lets people find out how far away their ride is simply by asking Alexa’s “intelligence.” The Skills Kit is a free resource that enables you to customize Alexa’s knowledge in such a way that makes sense for your organization and your customers. Now you can leverage the powerful data capabilities of Amazon’s cloud architecture to deliver a tailored voice experience to your clients.

Among the main selling points of Alexa-compatible products is their ability to direct other smart equipment. Internet-enabled thermostats help cut energy spending by automatically regulating HVAC performance when nobody is present. Smart lights and smart cameras, perhaps in conjunction with motion sensing equipment, contribute to safer and more comfortable work environments. You can control a vast array of these systems by issuing the appropriate commands to Alexa. While most such hardware is marketed for home use, it can be equally valuable at your business location.

Using Alexa does present certain security issues. Your company’s data—and that of your customers—will be fired off across the Internet toward Amazon’s servers and back again. This raises privacy concerns, but there’s little you can do apart from restricting Alexa’s access to customer information that’s irrelevant to its legitimate tasks. If you control your office security system through Alexa, you’re subject to the additional risk of hackers gaining access to the premises. Always remember to install the appropriate security updates not just for Alexa itself but for all components of your entire security apparatus: locks, video cameras, alarms, et cetera.

The history of computing as a whole involves developing cutting-edge features, initially for a small market, and then broadening the user base while refining the technology. This is the path being followed by Alexa and other virtual assistants today. As natural language processing ability increases, prices come down and feature sets expand, we’ll soon see this type of software being deployed in countless home and business applications. Jump aboard this exciting trend, or you may find your firm falling behind more tech-savvy competitors.

Author: Beth Kotz is a freelance business writer specializing in new technology and finance. Beth earned a BA in Communications and Media from DePaul University in Chicago, IL, where she continues to live and work.

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