Amazon is sacking employees in its Alexa division even as it prepares to upgrade Alexa to be as smart as modern AI-powered chatbots like ChatGPT. The move will impact several hundred employees in the US, Canada, and India, according to an internal email sent on Friday.
“As we continue to invent, we’re shifting some of our efforts to better align with our business priorities, and what we know matters most to customers — which includes maximizing our resources and efforts focused on generative AI,” wrote Daniel Bausch, Amazon’s vice president of Alexa and Fire TV in the email, first obtained by GeekWire. “These shifts are leading us to discontinue some initiatives, which is resulting in several hundred roles being eliminated.”
An Amazon spokesperson confirmed to Engadget that the company was, indeed, laying off “several hundred” people in the division and said that Amazon was trying to find roles for those impacted wherever possible. “While this was a hard decision to make, we remain very optimistic about the future of Alexa,” the spokesperson said in a statement. “As we move forward, Alexa remains an incredibly important part of our business, and we will continue to invest and innovate to deliver on our vision.” The spokesperson did not say which initiatives were being discontinued.
Amazon released Alexa in 2014. But nearly ten years later, most people don’t use the digital assistant for anything beyond playing music, asking for the weather, or setting timers. OpenAI’s ChatGPT, which was powered by generative AI, was widely perceived to be smarter than Alexa and Siri, which sometimes struggle with basic requests. A few months ago, OpenAI added voice capabilities to ChatGPT, letting people have conversations with it in natural language.
In September, Amazon announced that it would upgrade Alexa with capabilities that would bring it closer in line with ChatGPT. Alexa will soon be powered by a large language model, the same foundational technology that is the basis of modern chatbots like ChatGPT. “Our latest model has been specifically optimized for voice,” David Limp, Amazon’s SVP of Devices & Services, told the audience at the company’s event that month, “and the things we know our customers love — like having access to real-time information, efficiently controlling their smart home, and getting the most out of their home entertainment.” Earlier this year, Limp announced he would leave Amazon after more than 13 years later this year and is now the CEO of Jeff Bezos’ space company Blue Origin.
The new upgrades to Alexa will mean that you won’t have to say “Alexa” each time you want something done. You’ll also be able to give complex requests, like asking the assistant to prepare the house for bedtime every weeknight at 9 PM, dim the lights, lock the doors, and set the temperature all at one go. Alexa will also be able to hold longer conversations and maintain the context of the discussion.
Amazon has so far laid off more than 27,000 employees across the company after it began mass-scale cutbacks a year ago for the first time in its history. Last week, the company cut 180 jobs from its gaming division, including the entire staff of Crown, a company-backed Twitch channel. Earlier this month, Amazon also laid off an unspecified number of employees in its music streaming unit and has previously cut more than 100 employees from its gaming divisions.