With Hejazi and Najdi dialects, Amazon’s Alexa becomes hyperlocal in Saudi Arabia
RIYAD: Amazon has said that the new Saudi dialect version of its Alexa and Echo smart speakers goes beyond local – it’s hyperlocal.
The speaker, who synchronizes with Alexa, the virtual assistant of the tech shopping giant, now communicates not only in generic Saudi Arabic, but also in the Hejazi dialect of Jeddah, the Najdi dialect of Riyadh and the Khaleeji dialect of Dammam and from the eastern gulf.
The product started shipping on December 14th.
“It goes beyond location,” Raf Fatani, Amazon’s regional general manager, devices and services, told Arab News. “It’s more about hyper-localization. “
This customization took Amazon two years, a task that will continue as the product is refined.
Fatani said: “We have over 100 teams around the world dedicated to this project. They’ve worked on everything from the physical product to packaging to compliance.
“Amazon has access to world-class linguists, artificial intelligence innovators, distinguished engineers and local content architects. “
Arabic joins the list of eight languages that Alexa understands: English, French, Portuguese, Hindi, German, Italian, Spanish, and Japanese.
Much of this latest development in language services has been done in Saudi Arabia.
“You cannot create a local product from Timbuktu,” Fatani added. “You have to be close to the customer to fully understand the cultural nuances.
Amazon’s Alexa voice services division has a Riyadh-based team that helps third-party companies provide Echo users with easy access to broadcasters such as MBC and Fatafeat, music streaming services such as Anghami, or to events such as the Riyadh season.
The system can retrieve football scores and updated prayer times, or turn off your lights at home. It has over 100,000 features.
“Our solution architects sit down with local service providers and work with them to develop Alexa skills in Saudi dialects,” Fatani said.
Amazon competes with Google’s Nest and Apple’s Siri in the global smart speaker market.
Echo came out in 2014 and the company shipped 100 million units worldwide through 2019. But that jumped to over 50 million sales in 2020, according to market research firm Business of Apps, coinciding. with the lockdowns caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
At the end of the second quarter of last year, Amazon held 42% of the smart speaker market, with Google 37% and Apple 21%, according to technology research firm Omdia.
When Fatani and his team developed the Saudi version of Echo and Alexa, he was often asked who were you building this for?
He said: “For my mother, who doesn’t speak English very well, who is elderly and not very tech savvy. If we build something easy for her, then it will be accessible to everyone.
The company said that with customers using the local version of Alexa, named after the ancient Egyptian library in Alexandria, the AI-based device will deepen its knowledge of Saudi cultures and norms.
Fatani said: “You can have a conversation and you’re not sure what to expect in terms of a response. Alexa’s personality continues to blow my mind. She knows Saudi poems, riddles and proverbs and she always learns more. “
Smart speakers grabbed the headlines in 2019 when it was revealed that the tech giants that make them use computers and thousands of people around the world to listen to the conversations customers have with them. their devices. This adds to the computer’s understanding of conversational language.
The revelation has raised privacy concerns, with tech companies expected to provide customers with information on how to mute their speaker microphones.
Fatani said privacy concerns around products remain a major concern at Amazon.
He added, “When you turn off the Echo mic, you are actually cutting off the power to the device.
“So it literally can’t work. Echo is designed with privacy in mind, rather than being an add-on. And as with humans, trust in technology is hard to gain and easily lost. If we don’t put user privacy as high as possible, we won’t have customers.
Fatani convinced senior Amazon management to focus on Saudi Arabia, pointing out that there were thousands of Echo users in the kingdom even before the device was available in Arabic.
He may also have pointed out that Saudi Arabia’s growing e-commerce industry is worth more than $ 7 billion in 2020, according to market analysis firm ecommerceDB.
However, Amazon has been increasingly active in the MENA region since March 2017, when it acquired the leading regional e-commerce platform Souq.com in a deal worth $ 580 million. dollars.
And Fatani noted that Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 ambition to create a knowledge-based “smart economy” is yet another incentive for Amazon to focus on the Kingdom.
Fatani said, “There is strong and stable internet connectivity which is the fastest in the world, high mobile penetration rates and a young population.
“So it was obvious. Why Saudi? Rather, why not Saudi? This is the right place and the right time to be here.
And what future for Echo and Alexa in Saudi Arabia and around the world?
Fatani added, “The future of voice control technology is unlikely to depend so much on the device itself.
“It will be more of the AI behind the device, which will simply fade away and help you with your day-to-day activities – so you can better manage your time and spend more time with your loved ones, without having to. . worrying about a piece of equipment.