Alexa now does follow on questions!

Alexa now does follow on questions!

We quickly learn patterns that work (and don’t work) with new tech. If something changes, we don’t always notice, because why would you try something that didn’t work (or mess with something that did)?

I’m very grateful to someone who alerted me in a private e-mail that Alexa has “gotten smarter”…she now remembers the topic of the conversation from question to question, meaning conversation gets much easier and more natural.

For example, it used to be true that if I said, “Alexa, how tall is Chris Pine?” and then wanted to know when the actor was born, I couldn’t just say, “Alexa, when was he born?” I had to say, “Alexa, when was Chris Pine born?”

That’s changed now!

Me: “Alexa, how tall is Chris Pine?”

Alexa: “Chris Pine’s height is 6 feet and 1 inch (184 centimeters).”

Me: “Alexa, how old is he?”

Alexa: “Chris Pine is 36 years old.”


Notice that I didn’t have to identify Chris Pine on the second question…Alexa remembered that’s who we were discussing.

Another example:

Me: “Alexa, who is Casey Affleck?”

Alexa: “Caleb Casey McGuire Affleck is an American actor and director.”

Me: “Alexa, who is his brother?”

Alexa: “Casey Affleck’s brother is Ben Affleck.”


I was quite impressed when I then asked, “Alexa, how tall is he?”

That’s a somewhat ambiguous question: am I talking about Casey or Ben at that point? I was thinking Ben, since he was the most recently discussed…and that’s the answer I got.

Alexa: “Ben Affleck’s height is 6 feet and 2 inches (1.89 meters).

It’s not just people.

Me: “Alexa, what is the capital of California?”

Alexa: “California’s capital is Sacramento, California.”

Me: “Alexa, how many people live there?”

Alexa: “The population of Sacramento, California, is about 466,000.”

It’s not always going to work (it doesn’t always work with people speaking your language, either…we sometimes get confused about the subject of a conversation).

Me: “Alexa, what is the tallest mountain in Peru?”

Alexa: “The tallest mountain in Peru is Huascaran.”

Me: “Alexa, what is the longest river there?”

Alexa didn’t understand the question.

I tried the sequence again, but this time said, “Alexa, what is the longest river in that country?” Alexa couldn’t find an answer.

Still, this is a considerable step forward. It’s not only clearly more efficient, it’s more natural. We want our talktech to learn to speak the way that we do, not the other way around. We’ve always done the latter with computers…when I was in high school, taking Basic could satisfy the foreign language requirement…

Google was already able to do follow on questions, but it’s nice to see it coming to Alexa.

I have access to the four main digital assistants: OK Google (they don’t name it), Siri (Apple), Cortana (Microsoft), and Alexa (Amazon).

I tried that same sequence on the others:

Me: “Siri, how tall is Chris Pine?”

Siri: “Chris Pine is 6′ 0.8” tall.

Me: “How old is he?”

Siri: “The answer is 36 years 4 months and 14 days.”

Siri did it, but I feel like Alexa’s answer is more natural, and I like that Alexa clarified the who the person was in the response.

Me: “Ok, Google. How tall is Chris Pine?”

OG: “Chris Pine is 6 feet tall.”

Me: “Ok, Google. How old is he?”

OG: “He’s 36 years old.”

OG’s language is perhaps more like a human’s would be. Interesting, looking at the “cards” on the phone, OG gave a lot more interesting and relevant information. It gave me heights for other people who are searched (Tom Hardy, Chris Pratt…) and showed me other questions people ask about Chris Pine. I would say OG seemed to contextually understand the question the best so far. The card from Siri looked very clinical, with all sorts of measurement conversions (including yards).

Alexa, by the way, showed me a picture…and linked to Wikipedia and offered to do a Bing search. Now, I do have to say that it’s nice that Alexa keeps a running record of our conversations…with OG, I think the first question disappeared from my display when the second was answered.

Me: “Cortana, how tall is Chris Pine?”

Cortana: “Chris Pine is six feet.”

Me: “Cortana, how old is he?”

Cortana: “Chris Pine is 36 years old.”

Cortana also showed me other information (Zachary Quinto’s height is interesting…clearly, Cortana realized they work together), and offered a Bing search as well as “See more about Chris Pine.”

This is a tough competition to call…Alexa gets a plus for showing me the series of questions, but I liked Cortana’s relevancy in the height comparisons the best. OG, though, showed me more “nearby” information. Siri was probably my least favorite…there is little question Apple has fallen behind a bit in this field, but I’m guessing they are working on a major upgrade.

Regardless, it’s nice to see Alexa getting this big improvement!

If you have other questions you would like me to test with the “Four Assistants”, feel free to let me know by commenting on this post.

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2 Responses to “Alexa now does follow on questions!”

  1. Edward Boyhan Says:

    This is good to know. One thing that I’ve noticed Alexa doing (which to me is more impressive):
    ME: “Alexa wake me up at 9 tomorrow”
    Alexa: “did you mean AM or PM”
    Me: “AM”
    Alexa: “Alarm set for 9AM tomorrow”
    She’s also smart enough to take cognizance of current time. If at 8AM I ask her to wake me at 11, she’ll ask if I mean AM or PM. However, if at 11AM I ask her to wake me at 3, she’ll respond with “Alarm set for 3PM today”

  2. Round up #160: Alexa expands, AWF Lockers arrive | I Love My Kindle Says:

    […] Alexa now does follow on questions! […]

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