On September 12, Amazon publically launched Alexa Answers, a crowdsourced Q&A platform that allows anyone to answer questions for Alexa. Since launching an invite-only beta in December 2018, Amazon says it has had good responses from its community. Will opening up the platform to the general public generate similar results?
The Motivation Behind Crowdsourcing
The most important question to ask Alexa might be, “Why does Alexa now accept answers from people?” The best answer is that Amazon wants to become more competitive in the voice assistant market. Two years in a row, Google Assistant won an 800-question competition conducted by Loop Ventures. Apple’s Siri finished in second. Alexa finished in third. The reason why Google was able to win this competition easily both years is simple. Google has collected and organized over two decades of questions asked by people on its search engine. Therefore, it is more capable of answering advanced questions.
Meanwhile, Alexa still has trouble answering questions that appear to be fairly straightforward. A few examples include the following: “Where was Barbara Bush buried?” “Who wrote the score for Lord of the Rings?,” “What’s cork made out of?,” and “Where do bats go in the winter?”
Existing Platforms With User-Generated Answers
Crowdsourcing answers isn’t a novel idea. Platforms across the web have been doing this for some time. Reddit, Quora, and WebMD are just a few examples. Have these platforms changed the web? For sure. Have they made it easier to get the correct answers to questions? Yes and no. It really depends on the questions being asked and the quality of the responses. For questions with objective answers, they most certainly have. For questions with subjective answers, it’s much more difficult to assess their role in helping people to find the best answers. In some cases, crowdsourced answers can lead to bad advice. However, they can also help people make good decisions based on a collection of opinions.
For Alexa, the goal is to answer questions with objective answers, not subjective ones. This means that it could very well be a good idea to crowdsource from anyone with Alexa Answers, assuming that submissions are accurate.
Rewarding Quality Answers
To reward answers that are proven correct, Alexa Answers is using a points system. Once a user submits an answer to a question, a community platform has a chance to review and rate the submission. The best answers are shared by Alexa whenever someone asks that question. In turn, the person who originally provided the answer used by Alexa can earn points.
At this time, it’s not clear if there is a tangible benefit to providing high-quality answers. It looks like the closest example to Alexa Answers might be Reddit’s points system based on upvotes and downvotes. Reddit mostly relies upon its organic community to deliver value. While the platform does use Reddit Coins, this virtual currency can’t be converted for cash or prizes.
It’s possible that Amazon could build a similar organic community with Alexa Answers that doesn’t need to rely upon tangible incentives. Still, one way to increase the number of people trying to answer questions as accurately as possible would be to reward top contributors through incentives (i.e. Amazon gift cards). This doesn’t appear to be in the plan, at least for now.
As with many large platforms, Alexa Answers is using automatic filtering to catch inappropriate and offensive content and language. Of course, one potential issue might be that an incorrect or offensive answer does somehow make it through these checks. This could be troublesome, especially due to a lack of enticing incentives for accurate answers and no clear disincentives for low-quality submissions.
Stupid Or Genius?
The answer to this question likely depends on your perspective of existing platforms that crowdsource information. In many ways, Amazon’s decision to open Alexa Answers to the public is inviting the possibility of inaccurate or subjective answers, which makes it easier to spread misinformation. However, it could also make it easier for Alexa users to get the correct answers to questions, which could improve the future of knowledge sharing and education.