On Technology: How Alexa Fits Into Amazon’s Prime Directive

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Five years ago, few would have guessed that Amazon would already be ahead of the top tech companies vying to be leaders in home automation. But Jeff Bezos, the founder and chief executive of the company, has been shaping this vision since the earliest days of Amazon. I recently revisited “The Everything Store,” a 2013 book by Brad Stone about how Bezos transformed the start-up from an online bookstore into the e-commerce behemoth it is today. “Bezos’ long-term goal is to sell everything, everywhere,” Stone writes. “He will attempt to move faster, work his employees harder, make bolder bets and pursue both big inventions and small ones, all to achieve his grand vision for Amazon — that it be not just an everything store, but ultimately an everything company.”

The fact that I live in New York, a city that thrives on accessibility, might explain why I was slow to grasp the appeal of Alexa. Here we have bodegas on every corner, most open 24 hours, in case you need to pick up a roll of toilet paper or a bottle of hot sauce in the middle of the night. But most Americans don’t live with the luxury of that immediacy. I didn’t really understand this until the holidays, when I went home to visit my mom in Virginia and we ran out of seltzer. Carbonated water is not an essential item. But in that moment, it would have been easier to quickly tell Alexa to place an order for us and forget about it until it arrived two or three days later, rather than try to remember to pick up a case of Poland Spring the next time someone made the 20-minute drive to the store. That’s the entire enticing promise of Amazon and Alexa: a much more efficient and manageable life, one in which you can outsource mundane tasks while you do something more important, like spend time with your family.

It’s not hard to imagine that Alexa might be displaced as rivals introduce their own efforts. Facebook is working on an intelligent assistant, called Jarvis (named for the smart computer that helps Tony Stark, or Iron Man, navigate his surroundings), as is Microsoft. There are rumors that Apple is working on a major update for Siri. Google is currently Amazon’s closest competitor. The company has spent decades organizing the world’s information and learning about our habits and preferences in the process, so that it will one day know what we want even before we do. Search, then, will evolve away from the actual act of searching to the act of surfacing. The company is working on a version of artificial intelligence called Google Assistant to perfect that very ability.

But while Google is working to anticipate your needs, Amazon is readying itself to be the only place you need to go to fulfill them. Thinking about Amazon’s restraints — the company has never tried to introduce a social network or an email service, for example — you can understand something about the future Amazon seems to envision: A time when no screen is needed at all, just your voice.

Anand Sanwal, the chief executive of CB Insights, a trend-forecasting start-up in New York, told me that Amazon has something that its competitors only dream of — consumer attention and trust. “In the last few years, Amazon has become the search engine for consumer products, instead of Google,” he said. “If you’re going to buy something, and you already have an Amazon account, you’re probably going to just buy it there. With Google, you still have to go to Amazon or Walmart.” Amazon is investing in supply trailers, drones and fulfillment centers to develop its own postal service and delivery system. And it’s still pushing its Dash buttons, those small pieces of hardware with one purpose: to order a single item from Amazon, like laundry detergent or dish soap. They seem unnecessary, until you consider them with all of Amazon’s other efforts: It’s not just an everything store, or even an everything company, but an everywhere (and anytime!) store.

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Photo illustration by Adam Ferriss. Matthew Stockman/Getty Images.

The various products that Amazon is planning to roll out — including Pantry and Fresh, its grocery service — can be easily baked into default Alexa services. Restaurants, the company’s version of Seamless, already is. All this in turn brings in more money for Amazon. As Limp put it back in July: “The nice thing about the Amazon device business is that when we sell a device, generally people buy more bluejeans. And little black dresses. And shoes.”

There’s a theory that behavioral economists use to explain our consumption habits called “hyperbolic discounting,” which is the tendency to choose short-term rewards over long-term gains. The “marshmallow test” of the 1960s tested the ability of preschoolers to resist temptation — the titular marshmallow, within reach — with the promise that they would be rewarded with two if they waited. In the experiment’s most popular interpretation, those who had self-control grew up to be much more successful than those who did not. It is one of the most formative studies in self-control and how people make decisions. Alexa is the ultimate marshmallow test, and most of us are failing. We are being conditioned, as a population, to never wait, to never delay our gratification, to accept thoughtless, constant consumption as the new norm. But how we think about consumption and willpower carry enormous implications for the environment and the culture of society as a whole. Think about that the next time you ask Alexa to order you another roll of toilet paper.

Correction: January 26, 2017
An earlier version of this article misstated the total number of marshmallows offered to the preschool subjects of the “marshmallow test” of the 1960s. If the subjects could resist the temptation of a single marshmallow, they were rewarded with one more — not two more.

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