How Alexa is adapting to meet new-age needs of Arab audiences

July 29, 2022

Alexa was no stranger to the GCC even before an Arabic-speaking Echo devices were launched in the region in December 2021. A significant number of customers already owned and enjoyed Echo devices with an English version of Alexa, or Kindle e-readers and Ring smart home devices.

But since last year, Alexa is delivering a truly localized experience for GCC customers, with nearly 200 skills available in Arabic. Customers can track a ride using Careem, get recipes and cook along instructions with Fatafeat, track food orders through Domino’s, learn what movies are playing with the reel cinema skill, listen to music with the Anghami or Spotify skills, listen to an audiobook with the Storytel skill, and much more.

Dr. Raf Fatani, Amazon – Regional General Manager, Alexa, MENA explains: “Alexa is evolving rapidly and delivering a fully localized experience to customers in Saudi Arabia and the UAE to make their life more enjoyable and productive. Of course, there is a difference between what Alexa understands and how Alexa speaks. Arabic has a magnitude of different dialects, and for customers in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Alexa uses a familiar Khaleeji dialect.”

Alexa can understand all Khaleeji (Gulf) Arabic dialects, Modern Standard Arabic (Fus’ha), or English and respond in a Khaleeji Arabic dialect or English – depending on the customer settings. The Alexa experience was tested extensively with existing Amazon customers from the Gulf region to ensure it was as accurate as possible.

AI and ML – the driving force of Alexa

There are many elements that go into expanding Alexa into other languages, particularly when it comes to new dialects, services and cultural norms. For each new language, a new machine learning model has to be trained from scratch.

For example, Arabic has 12.3 million words, as compared to 600,000 in English and 150,000 in French. There are many aspects of localizing Alexa that go beyond translation. First, it’s about selecting a voice that is likely to appeal to a majority of local customers. Then, testing Alexa’s Automatic Speech Recognition with multiple accents is key, helping Alexa to understand context and intent, and developing a local personality that will surprise and delight customers. Finally, offering unique features (like spirituality in this case), and working with local and global brands to create relevant Alexa skills for customers in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, is important.

To take the localization experience a step further, Alexa is even engaging in partnerships with local businesses and service providers to offer a truly localized experience for Arabic customers. For example, the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority is the first government utility in the world to provide its smart services on Alexa in Arabic, with plans for many more skills to be added in the Arabic language in the coming year.

Privacy is top of mind

Alexa takes the privacy and security of its customers’ personal information very seriously. Alexa and Echo devices have been built with multiple layers of privacy, from microphone and camera controls to the ability to view and delete voice recordings. This means that Alexa starts listening only after a customer says the wake word (which by default is “Alexa” but Amazon or Echo can also be used), followed by their request.

Echo devices use built-in technology that matches what has been spoken to the acoustic patterns of the wake word – a technology called “keyword spotting”. When the Echo device detects the wake word, it streams the audio to Amazon’s secure cloud, where powerful processing capabilities try to confirm if the wake word was indeed spoken. To make sure consumers always know when Alexa is streaming audio, a blue light is illuminated. As an additional security measure, all Echo smart speakers have microphone controls which can be disconnected at the touch of a button. A red light goes on to indicate that the device can no longer detect the wake word and send audio to Amazon’s secure cloud. If the consumer wants Alexa to help them, the microphone button has to be switched back on again.

Customers also have access to Alexa Privacy Hub – an online resource that provides more information on privacy, how Alexa and Echo devices work, and gives customers an easy way to manage their privacy settings.

Aligned with digitalization

The UAE has developed a strategy to improve priority sectors through the deployment of AI under the National Strategy for Artificial Intelligence . Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia too has launched its National Strategy for Data and AI. These developments are aligned with Amazon’s vision to democratize voice AI to bridge the digital divide.

There is proof of the applications of this agenda, and how Alexa can contribute to it, with the introduction of Alexa in both English and Arabic by DEWA. Similarly, Alexa has a huge range of potential applications across many sectors – from entertainment and retail, to banking, medical, hospitality and more.

by Anil George
Avid follower of all things tech. In between his quest for the ultimate gizmo, Anil fiddles with light meters, collects rare books and feeds his fetish for Jap horror movies. As Managing Editor of T3 Middle East for the GCC, Anil oversees content direction across print and digital. He was a CES 2020 Innovation Awards Judge, reprising his role as an Innovation Awards Judge at CES 2018, CES 2017, 2016 and 2015. Anil is also the Middle East's first Brand Ambassador for Ashdown Engineering. Reach him at: editor@t3me.com.