Amazon wants to cut the lag time between your asking Alexa a question and the virtual assistant giving you an answer. According to a report by The Information, the online retailer is developing its own artificial intelligence chips to be used in Echo devices and other hardware. If successfully created and deployed, these AI chips would allow more voice-based requests to be processed on-device rather than going to the cloud.
Currently, Alexa needs to contact the cloud to interpret commands. That's why there's a short delay after you ask the virtual assistant a question—it needs to analyze the command and gather an answer with help from the cloud. A dedicated AI chip in a device like an Echo would allow Alexa to process certain requests more quickly, decreasing the delay that lies in between your question and Alexa's answer. While complex inquiries will likely still be handled with help from the cloud, more simple commands could be processed all on the device itself.
Amazon reportedly has 450 people with chip knowledge on staff now, many of which came via recent acquisitions. The company bought the Israeli chipmaker Annapurna Labs in 2015 for $350 million and the security camera company Blink for a reported $90 million at the end of 2017. It's believed that Amazon bought Blink specifically for its low-energy chip expertise; the company's smart home security cameras use these chips to extend the battery life of its camera modules to at least two years.
These plans and acquisitions show Amazon wants to stay competitive in the smart home space, dedicating a lot of resources to improving its Echo devices to be faster and more useful. It also can't be forgotten that Echo devices and Alexa heavily integrate with Amazon's retail business—the faster Alexa can respond to inquiries, the easier it will be for customers to use it as a way to place orders on Amazon. In addition, Amazon's producing its own chips could cut costs and make Echos and other smart home devices more affordable for the company to produce.
Amazon joins the likes of Apple and Google with its new AI chipmaking efforts. Apple recently deployed a new "neural network" in its A11 Bionic chip used to process machine learning algorithms involved with FaceID and ARKit computations. Google is no stranger to developing its own AI hardware, having done so for years and most recently outfitting the new Clips camera with its own AI chip.