Voice-driven home assistant platforms Archive

Amazon Alexa is a native app for Windows 10 PC

Article

Dell Inspiron 13 7000 2-in-1 Intel 8th Generation CPU at QT Melbourne hotel

You can use Amazon Alexa on any Windows 10 computer thanks to a generally-available Microsoft Store app

Control Alexa from your Windows 10 PC | CNet

My Comments

Amazon are releasing a Windows 10 native app that serves as a gateway to their Alexa voice-driven home-assistant ecosystem. Initially this was a very limited release that was preinstalled on certain computer ranges like Lenovo’s Yoga laptop range, but they are making it generally available through the Microsoft Store in the USA. This means you could install it on any Windows 10 desktop, laptop or 2-in-1 rather than having to buy one of the certain computers that come with this function if you want to speak to Alexa through that computer.

It will be targeted for any regular computer that is running Windows 10 as long as it has a microphone and the usual keyboard. There will be the ability to invoke Alexa through a keyboard shortcut or to click / tap the Alexa button within the app. The “Wake On Voice” functionality where you can speak the “Alexa” keyword to invoke Alexa will be available on some supported computers.

At the moment, the Amazon Alexa native app for Windows 10 doesn’t provide the kind of management that its iOS or Android mobile-platform brethren provide. This means that you will have to use the Alexa management Web page to manage the Skills available to your Echo devices or the smart-home ecosystem that they are part of.

Amazon Echo on kitchen bench press photo courtesy of Amazon USA

This will make your Windows laptop work a bit like the Amazon Echo

The other question that may be raised by Amazon as part of developing the Alexa app further is whether the Alexa app will provide a visual interface of the “Echo Show” kind for those skills that have visual abilities. It may be seen as a further direction for third-party Alexa-platform devices to answer the Google Assistant (Home) platform.

I would expect that these features will come through in newer versions of this app. Similarly I would expect that this app would be rolled out in to all of the markets that Amazon has established the Alexa / Echo ecosystem in to over time.

The Alexa app is part of a strong effort by the two Seattle-based IT giants to provide a strong partnership between their efforts i.e. the Windows desktop operating system for Microsoft and the Alexa voice-assistant / smart-home ecosystem for Amazon.

This effort was initially represented through the availability of “pathway” skills between Microsoft’s Cortana and Amazon’s Alexa assistants. It is with the ability also to provide the necessary abilities to users to interlink their user accounts on each of these services for transparent operation.

It could be seen to be about Microsoft dumping the Cortana assistant’s home-automation roles. Or it could be about Amazon and Microsoft to fuse together their voice-driven assistants in a manner to build a highly-strung Seattle-based voice-driven assistant platform to take on what is being offered by Silicon Valley.

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Third-party Google Assistant smart displays start benefiting from Google Home Hub features

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Lenovo Smart Display now to be the same level as the Google Home Hub

Lenovo to Send Out Update to Smart Displays That Has All the Google Home Hub Goodies | Droid Life

Lenovo updates Smart Display with Google Home Hub features | Engadget

From the horse’s mouth

Lenovo

New features coming to Smart Display (Oct 22nd) {Forum Post – Press Release)

My Comments

Google recently launched their Home Hub smart display which is a “first-party” effort to offer more that what their Google-Assistant-based third-party smart displays offer.

This included multiroom audio functionality with Google’s Chromecast, Home smart speakers and other similar devices; Live Album display for the Google Photos application; tight integration with the Nest Hello smart doorbell; a dashboard user interface for your compatible Internet-of-Things devices on your home network; amongst other features.

But they have started rolling out extra software code to third-party Smart Display manufacturers to open up these extra features to their Google-based smart-screen devices. The first of these to benefit from this update are the Lenovo Smart Displays which will benefit from a firmware update (version 3.63.43) to be rolled out from October 22nd 2018.

The firmware will be automatically updated in your Lenovo Smart Display and you can check if it is updated through the Settings menu. Here, you have to “swipe up” from the bottom of your Lenovo Smart Display’s screen to expose the Settings icon, which you would tap to bring up the menu.

The question that will surface for others with similar Google-based smart displays like the JBL Link View would be if and when the display’s manufacture will roll out the firmware update for their devices. It is something that is similarly happening with the Android mobile-device platform where the Google first-party devices have that latest software updates and features first while third-party devices end up with the software a few months later. This is ostensibly to allow the device manufacturer to “bake in” their user interface and other features into the package.

But could the Google-based Assistant / Home platform simply end up as the “Android” for voice-driven smart-display devices?

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Google and Amazon on the network multiroom audio game

Articles

Amazon Echo on kitchen bench press photo courtesy of Amazon USA

Amazon intends to make the Echo smart speaker and Alexa voice-driven home assistant part of a full-blown network multiroom audio system

How to set up multi-room audio with Google Assistant & Chromecast speakers | The Ambient

How to set up multiroom music playback with Amazon Echo | The Verge

Amazon Echo speakers adding stereo pairing, better multiroom audio support | CNet

Amazon Leapfrogs Google And Apple In Home Automation | Lifehacker

From the horse’s mouth

Google

Multi-room group playback with Google Home (Support Resource)

Amazon

Play Music on Multiple Echo Devices (Support Resource)

Amazon Announces New Echo Devices—Add Alexa to Every Room and Your Car (Press Release)

My Comments

Google Home and the Chromecast platform is already running a basic network multiroom audio setup

Google recently enabled their Assistant and Chromecast platforms to support network-based multiroom audio through compliant audio devices.  This has the facility to stream selected online audio sources to the audio devices that work these platforms and permits the use of logical groups as well as party-mode playback of the same source across the multiple devices in that group.

Amazon initially let out an Alexa application-programming interface to permit multiroom audio play across multiple Echo or Alexa-compatible devices. This initially supported logical groups and party-mode playback of the same source across devices in a logical group. But they one-upped Google by adding extra functionality to their Alexa API for multiroom audio including the ability to set up a stereo speaker pair or allow a speaker to be a member of two groups. It is in conjunction with a newer Echo Show device answering the Lenovo Smart Display that is based on Google’s Home Platform.

As well, Amazon had just unveilled new hardware under their brand to take advantage of these new capabilities. One of thse is the Echo Sub subwoofer that can be set up to work alongside a single Echo speaker or a pair of Echo speakers set up to work as a stereo pair for wider stereo separation. It is about adding that bit of extra bass kick to the sound that comes out of those speakers. Then the Echo Dot and Echo Plus speakers have been revised while an Echo Input device was unveilled to put all its audio output via a a connected speaker or sound system.

To connect your favourite hi-fi system to the Amazon Alexa infrastructure, Amazon offered the Echo Link devices which just exist to stream audio content. Both of these connect to the equipment via an analogue RCA line-level connection or an SPDIF digital connection which can be coaxial or optical. They also have both a digital and analogue input connection, perhaps to pass audio devices through the connected sound system, but I am not sure if these devices can stream an audio source in to the Amazon Echo setup that you have established. The Link Amp variant has an integral power amplifier in order to play the music content through your existing passive speakers.

A question that may surface as Amazon rolls the enhanced network multiroom audio functionality across the Alexa platform is whether third-party devices could benefit from these new functions. As well, could Google answer Amazon by offering the extra feature and more for their Home platform especially if they run a range of smart speaker products under their own label? It could simply be the sign of things to come as both Amazon and Google duke it out for the voice-driven home assistant market.

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BMW to use the car as a base for a European voice-driven assistant platform

Article

BMW Intelligent Personal Assistant may be the cold, distant German Siri of our dreams | CNet

From the horse’s mouth

BMW Group

Video – Click or tap to play

My Comments

I have been pushing for the idea of European firms answering what Silicon Valley offers but applying European values to these offerings. Here, it’s like the rise of Airbus and Arianespace from France answering the USA’s leadership in the aerospace industry.

I was calling this out because the European Commission were always worried about the way the popular Silicon-Valley-based online services, especially Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple were doing to European personal and business values like democracy, competitive markets, user privacy and transparency. Their typical answer was to either pass more regulations or litigating against them in the European court system. But they could easily encourage European companies to offer online services that underscore the European mindset through, for example, business-development assistance. 

It is something that is slowly happening with the rise of Spotify, the leading world-wide jukebox, rising from Sweden. There is also a persistent effort within France to answer YouTube with a peer-to-peer video-streaming service.

Now BMW have stepped up to the plate by working on a voice-driven assistant which will initially be focused towards the automotive space. But they intend to take it beyond the vehicle and have it as a European competitor to Alexa, Siri, Google Assistant or Cortana.

But I would say that even if they don’t get it beyond the car dashboard, they could establish it as a white-label platform for other European tech firms to build upon. This could lead to the creation of smart-speaker products from the likes of Bang & Olufsen or TechniSat that don’t necessarily have to run a Silicon-Valley voice-driven assistant platform. Or Bosch or Electrolux could work on a “smart-home” control setup with a voice-driven assistant that is developed in Europe.

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Google Assistant has the ability to break the bad news cycle

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Google’s Assistant is here to give you a break from the horrible news cycle | FastCompany

From the horse’s mouth

Google

Hey Google, tell me something good (Blog Post)

Video – Click or tap to play

My Comments

The news cycle that you hear in the USA has been primarily focused on bad news especially with what President Trump is up to or some natural disaster somewhere around the world. It is a very similar issue that is happening around the world. A common issue that is drawn out regarding this oversaturation of bad news is that it can bring about fear, uncertainty and doubt regarding our lives with some entities taking advantage of it to effectively manipulate us.

Some of us follow particular blogs or Facebook pages that contain curated examples of good news that can break this monotony and see solutions for the highlighted problems. But Google is extending this to a function they are building in to the Google Assistant platform with stories that are curated by people rather than machines and, in a lot of cases, derived from a variety of media sources. But this is facilitated by the Solutions Journalism Network non-profit which is more about solution-focused media coverage.

Of course, there will be the doubters and skeptics who will think that we aren’t facing reality and are dwelling in the “Hippie Days” and the “Jesus People” era of the 1960s and early 1970s. But being able to come across positive solutions for the various problems being put forward, including people working “outside the box” to solve that problem can inspire us.

This is a feature is offering on an experimental basis through the USA only and can be used on your Google Home or other Google-Assistant devices. But as this application is assessed further, it could be easily made available across more countries.

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JBL Link View Google-powered smart speaker up for pre-order

Articles JBL Link View lifestyle press image courtesy of Harman International

JBL Link View now up for preorder as the next Amazon Echo Show competitor | CNET News

JBL’s Google-powered smart display launches next month for $250 | The Verge

JBL’s Google-powered smart display is available for preorder | Engadget

JBL Link View Google Assistant smart display up for pre-order, ships September 3rd | 9 to 5 Google

From the horse’s mouth

JBL

Link View (Product page – link to preorder)

My Comments

The Amazon Echo Show is just about to face more competition from the Google Assistant (Home) front with JBL taking advance orders for their Link View smart speaker. This is although Lenovo has just started to roll out a production run of their Smart Displays which are based on the Google Assistant (Home) platform.

JBL have taken advance orders on this speaker since Wednesday 2 August 2018 (USA time) with them costing USD$250 a piece. They expect to have them fully available in the US market by September 3 2018 (USA time). The display on this unit serves the same purpose as the one on the Lenovo Smart Displays where it simply augments your conversation with Google Assistant using a visual experience.

These units look a bit like a boombox or stereo table radio and have an 8” high-definition touch screen along with two 2” (51mm) full-range speakers separately amplified and flanking the screen for stereo sound reproduction. Here, this traditional approach with the stereo speakers at each end of the device leads towards better perceived stereo separation. CNET saw this as offering more “punch” for music content compared to other “smart-display” devices that they experienced.

There is the camera to work with Google Duo but this device has also been designed to take care of user privacy needs thanks to a privacy shutter over the camera along with a microphone mute switch.

Like other Google Assistant (Home) devices, the JBL Link View can work as a wireless speaker for Chromecast Audio and Bluetooth links from mobile devices.

This is the start of something happening with the Google Assistant (Home) platform where the devices being offered by Lenovo and JBL are offering more than what Amazon are currently offering for their smart displays. It includes the stereo speakers for the JBL Link View along with larger displays for both the Lenovo and JBL products. LG and Sony are intending to launch their Google-powered smart displays soon but I don’t know when.

Personally, I would see Amazon and Google establishing a highly-competitive market for smart speakers and allied devices especially if both of them answer each other with devices of similar or better standards. As well, licensing the Alexa and Google Assistant (Home) standards to third-party consumer-electronics companies will also open up the path for innovation including incremental product-design improvements.

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Lenovo launches the first smart display to compete with Amazon Echo Show

Lenovo Smart Display press picture courtesy of Lenovo USA

Lenovo Smart Displays now available in the USA (press picture courtesy of Lenovo USA)

Articles

Lenovo delivers the first Google Assistant smart display | Engadget

Google and Lenovo’s Smart Display Trounces Amazon’s in Every Way | Gizmodo

First of the Google Assistant-Powered Smart Displays Arrives This Week From Lenovo | Droid Life

From the horse’s mouth

Google

The first Smart Displays with the Google Assistant are now available in stores (Blog Post)

Lenovo

Smart Display (Product Page, Blog Post)

Video – Click or tap to play

My Comments

Google premiered the idea of smart displays based on their Google Assistant (Home) platform at the Consumer Electronics Show in January 2018. This is seen as an intent by Google to answer Amazon’s Echo Show smart display and they had Lenovo and JBL register their intent by presenting prototype products at that trade show. Lenovo even exhibited two models – a baseline unit with an 8” display and a premium unit with a 10” display.

Now Lenovo have made these Smart Displays available to the US market. Here, they will be made available through most of the well-known online and bricks-and-mortar stores who sell household technology like Walmart, Best Buy, Amazon, Costco and Sams Club, as well as being available direct through Lenovo.com.

The baseline model has an 8” screen with a 1280×800 resolution and a single full-range 10-watt speaker and being sold for USD$199.99. The premium model has a 10” display with a 1920×1200 resolution, two full-range speakers and a bamboo finish on the back for USD$249.99. Here, even the baseline model offers a larger display than what the Amazon Echo Show is equipped with.

There is the access to Google’s online services including YouTube, Duo and Maps. Users can even sign up to YouTube TV to receive most of the USA’s over-the-air and cable TV networks on this device via the Internet for USD$40 per month. As well, users also have access to Spotify, Pandora, iHeartRadio, TuneIn Radio along with most of the other popular content services available to the US market. They can also engage in videocalls using the Google Duo “over-the-top” IP-telephony platform thanks to an integrated video camera. Google Photos also allows these Smart Displays to become electronic picture frames as well.

Like other devices based on the Google Assistant (Home) platform, these Lenovo Smart Displays support the Google Assistant Routines which are effectively like “macros” or “scripts” that run a user-determined series of actions under one command. There is also the ability for these smart displays to interlink with “smart home” devices that work with the Google Assistant (Home) platform and can run video from compatible devices like the Nest Cam.

Individual privacy has been taken care of properly with a mechanical shutter that is slid over the camera along with a switch to mute the microphone. That feature is also important to prevent Google Assistant acting on “wake words” or other commands that may be said in normal conversation or uttered by a device.

From what I have seen of the photos posted online of this device, there is a clear concise graphically-rich user experience offered on the screen. It is rather than having a second-rate text-based display offered on the Amazon Echo Show devices. This is because the visual component of Google Assistant (Home) is based on the Android variant of the Google Assistant and it makes it easier to achieve a visual user interface across both Android devices and these Smart Displays.

But there is limited portrait-mode support amongst the app based offered for this platform. It is a sign that the visual-aid functionality for Google Assistant (Home) is still a “rough diamond” and Google and third parties will be needing to refine this functionality further.

I would see some of the other makes like JBL launch at least one Smart Display product for the Google Assistant (Home) ecosystem over the next few months, if not by year’s end.

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You can find out what Cortana has recorded

Article

Harman Invoke Cortana-driven smart speaker press picture courtesy of Harman International

You can also manage your interactions with the Harman-Kardon Invoke speaker here

How to delete your voice data collected by Microsoft when using Cortana on Windows 10 | Windows Central

My Comments

Previously, I posted an article about managing what Amazon Alexa has recorded when you use an Amazon Echo or similar Alexa-compatible device.

Now Microsoft has a similar option for Cortana when you use it with Windows 10. This is also important if you use the Harman-Kardon Invoke smart speaker, the Johnson Controls GLAS smart thermostat as long as they are bound to your Microsoft account.

Windows 10 Settings - Accounts - Manage My Microsoft Account

Manage your Microsoft Account (and Cortana) from Windows 10 Settings

In most instances such as your computer, Cortana may be activated by you clicking on an icon on the Taskbar or pressing a button on a suitably-equipped laptop, keyboard or other peripheral to have her ready to listen. But you may set her up to hear the “Hey Cortana” wake word to listen to you. This may be something that a Cortana-based smart device may require of you for expected functionality when you set it up.

This may be a chance where Cortana may cause problems with picking up unwanted interactions. But you can edit what Cortana has recorded through your interactions with her.

Here, you go in to Settings, then click on Accounts to open the Accounts screen. Click on Your Info to which will show some basic information about the Microsoft Account associated with your computer.

Privacy dashboard on your Microsoft Account management Website

Privacy dashboard on your Microsoft Account management Website

Click on “Manage My Microsoft Account” which will open a Web session in your default browser to manage your Microsoft Account. Or you could go directly to https://account.microsoft.com without needing to go via the Settings menu on your computer. The direct-access method can be important if you have to use another computer like a Mac or Linux box or don’t want to go via the Settings option on your Windows 10 computer.

Microsoft Account Privacy Dashboard - Cortana Interactions highlighted

Click here for your Cortana Voice interaction history

You will be prompted to sign in to your Microsoft Account using your Microsoft Account credentials. Click on the “Privacy” option to manage your privacy settings. Then click on the “Activity History” option and select “Voice” to view your voice interactions with Cortana. Here, you can replay each voice interaction to assess whether they should be deleted. You can delete each interaction one by one by clicking the “Delete” option for that interaction or clear them all by clicking the “Clear activity” option.

Details of your voice interactions with Cortana

Details of your voice interactions with Cortana

Your management of what Cortana has recorded takes place at the Microsoft servers in the same vein to what happens with Alexa. But there will be the disadvantage of Cortana not having access to the false starts in order to use her machine learning to understand your voice better.

These instructions would be useful if you are dealing with a Cortana-powered device that doesn’t use a “push-to-talk” or “microphone-mute” button where you can control when she listens to you.

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Sonos launches the first soundbar that works with multiple voice-driven home assistants

Articles

Sonos Beam soundbar connected to TV - press picture courtesy of Sonos

Sonos Beam under the TV

Sonos says its new Beam speaker will be able to talk to Siri, Alexa, and Assistant | FastCompany

A closer look at Sonos Beam: Smaller, smarter and more connected | Engadget

Sonos introduce cheaper, smarter Sonos Beam soundbar | PC World

From the horse’s mouth

Sonos

Sonos Beam (product page – direct purchase opportunity, press release)

My Comments

Sonos Beam soundbar (black finish) press picture courtesy of Sonos

Sonos Beam soundbar

Sonos has offered a smart speaker that not just is part of their own multi-room ecosystem but can work with multiple different voice assistants. Now they have taken this concept further by offering the Sonos Beam compact sound bar which can do this same trick.

They have taken this approach due to a reality with people operating two or more different voice-driven assistants. The classic reality would be someone who has an Amazon Echo at home but uses Siri in their iPhone or Google Assistant in their Android smartphone. But these assistants don’t complement each other effectively or even work with each other at all.

But this has been taken further with the Sonos Beam soundbar which is seen as a competitor to JBL’s Link Bar soundbar that has integrated Android TV set-top box functionality and can work with the Google Assistant. Initially it will come with Amazon Alexa but Siri and Google Assistant will be delivered as firmware updates through the year. A firmware upgrade will fully enable the Sonos Beam for Apple’s AirPlay 2 ecosystem which is Apple’s take on a full-blown multiroom setup centred around their products.

Sonos multiroom system press picture courtesy of Sonos

Works equally well with the rest of the Sonos multiroom system

For the sound, the Sonos Beam soundbar uses a digital-enhancement approach to draw out the bass from its compact cabinet. But you could team it with Sonos’s “Sub” subwoofer if you find that this may offer a better job at providing that extra bass. As well, thanks to the Sonos setup, you could team two of their standard speakers if you want to set up the full surround-sound experience.

The Sonos Beam “hears” you through an integrated far-field microphone array. But you can control whether it hears you or not by pressing a microphone-mute button on the speaker – this will have a “mic” icon located on it. The ability to control the microphone on this device reduces the risk of nuisance triggering which can easily happen when TV content is being played. Thanks to the HDMI-CEC standard facilitated by the HDMI-ARC connection, there is the ability to voice-control your TV in relation to sound volume (including muting the advertisements) or power status.

A limitation most of us will find with this soundbar is that it only has one HDMI connection for HDMI-ARC connectivity to the TV for its sound. This can be very constraining for those of us who use a TV that has very few HDMI connections and you use all these connections for various video peripherals.

But it is another effort by Sonos to prove that a smart-speaker device could support multiple voice-driven assistant platforms on the same device. Could this also be a reality with other equipment manufacturers soon? On the other hand, could this device become a virtual friend for that lonely person by providing better sound for daytime TV or being someone to talk to?

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You can find out what Alexa has recorded

Article

Amazon Echo on kitchen bench press photo courtesy of Amazon USA

You can find out what Amazon Alexa has recorded through your Echo device

How To Find Out What Your Alexa Is Recording | Lifehacker

My Comments

Recently, the computer press went in to overdrive about an Amazon Echo setup that unintentionally recorded and forwarded a family’s private conversation and forwarded it to someone in Seattle. Here, the big question that was asked was what was your Amazon Echo or similar smart speaker device recording without you knowing.

Amazon Echo, Google Home and similar voice-driven home-assistant platforms require a smart speaker that is part of the platform to hear for a “wake word” which is a keyword that wakes up these devices and has them listening. Then these devices capture and interpret what you say after that “wake word” in order to perform their function. One of the functions that these devices may perform is audio messaging where they could record a user’s message and pass that message on to another user on the same platform.

I had previously covered the issue of these voice-driven assistants being at risk of nuisance triggering including mentioning about the XBox game console supporting a voice assistant that triggered when an adman on a TV commercial called out a spot-special for the games console by saying “XBox On Sale” or “XBox On Special”.

Here, I recommended the use of a manual “call button” to make these devices ready to listen when you are ready or a “microphone mute” toggle to prevent your device being falsely triggered. As well, I recommended a visual indicator on the device that signals when it is listening. This is a practice mainly done with voice-assistant functionality that is part of a video peripheral’s feature set or software that runs on a platform computing device. Google’s Home smart speaker instead uses the microphone-mute button to allow you to control its microphone.

But you can check what Alexa has been recording from your Amazon Echo or other Alexa-compatible speaker device and delete private material that she shouldn’t have captured. This is also useful if you are troubleshooting one of these devices, identifying misunderstood instructions or are developing an Alexa Skill for the Alexa ecosystem.

  1. Here you launch the Amazon Alexa mobile-platform app on your smartphone. If you are using the Amazon Alexa Website (http://alexa.amazon.com) as previously mentioned on this site, there is a similar procedure to go about identifying your Amazon Echo sessions.
  2. Then you tap on the hamburger-shaped “advanced operation” icon on the top left of your screen.
  3. Tap on Settings to bring up a Settings menu for your setup. Go to the History option in the Alexa Account section of that menu.
  4. Here, you will see a list of interactions with any Alexa-ecosystem hardware or software front-end related to your Amazon account. These will be categorised by what has been understood and what hasn’t been understood. There is an option to filter the interaction list by date, which is handy if you have made heavy use of your Amazon Echo device through the months and years.

You can play each interaction to be sure of what your Alexa device or software has recorded. With these interactions, the current version of the interface only allows you to delete each unwanted interaction on by one. The effect of the deletion is that the interaction, including the voice recording, disappears from your account and the Amazon servers. But this could degrade your Amazon Alexa experience due to it not having much data to work on for its machine-learning abilities.

Here, at least with the Amazon Alexa ecosystem, you have some control over what has been recorded so you can remove potentially-private conversations from that ecosystem.

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