CNN
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Amazon’s Alexa is about to bring generative AI inside the house, as the company introduces sweeping changes to how its ubiquitous voice assistant both sounds and functions.

The company announced a generative AI update for Alexa and, subsequently, of all Echo products dating back to 2014, at a press event Wednesday at its new campus in Arlington, Virginia. Alexa will be able to resume conversations without a wake word, respond more quickly, learn user preferences, field follow-up questions and change its tone based on the topic. Alexa will even offer opinions, such as which movies should have won an Oscar but didn’t.

Generative AI refers to a type of artificial intelligence that can create new content, such as text and images, in response to user prompts.

“It feels just like talking to a human being,” an Amazon executive claimed.

The updates come as Amazon tries to keep pace with a new wave of conversational AI tools that have accelerated the artificial intelligence arms race in the tech industry and rapidly reshaped what consumers may expect from their tech products. The company did not disclose when the updates will make their way into products.

In a live demo, Dave Limp, senior VP of devices and services at Amazon, asked Alexa about his favorite college football team without ever stating the name. (Limp said he previously told Alexa and it remembered). If his favorite team wins, Alexa responds joyfully; if they lose, Alexa will respond with empathy.

When Limp said “Alexa, let’s chat,” it launched a special mode that allowed for a back-and-forth exchange on various topics. Notably, Limp paused several times to address the audience and resumed the conversation with Alexa without using the “Alexa” wake word, picking up where they left off.

The demo wasn’t without hiccups – Alexa’s response time at times lagged – but the voice assistant had far more personality, spoke in a more natural and expressive tone, and kept the conversation flowing back and forth.

Although the company did not outline specific safeguards – some other large-language models have previously gone off the rails – it said on its website “it will design experiences to protect our customers’ privacy and security, and to give them control and transparency.”

The company also said new developer tools will allow companies to work alongside its large-language model. In a blog post, Amazon said it is already partnering with a handful of companies, such as BMW, to develop conversational in-car voice assistant capabilities.

Rowan Curran, an analyst at Forrester Research, said the news marks a major step forward in bringing generative AI to the home and allowing it to accomplish everyday tasks. By connecting speech-to-text to external systems and by using a large language model to understand and produce natural speech, this is “where we can begin to see the future of how we will use this technology near-ubiquitously in our everyday lives.”

Some US users will get access to the changes through a free preview on existing Echo devices. Over the years, Alexa has been infused in countless Echo products, from its speaker and hub lineup to clocks, microwaves,and eyeglasses.

Amazon also said it will be bringing generative AI to its Fire TV platform, allowing users to ask more natural, nuanced or open-ended questions about genres, storylines and scenes or make more targeted content suggestions.

Alexa launched nearly a decade ago and, along with Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana, and other voice assistants, were promised to change the way people interacted with technology. But the viral success of ChatGPT has arguably accomplished some of those goals faster and across a wider range of everyday products.

The effort to continue updating the technology that powers Alexa comes at a difficult moment for Amazon. Like other Big Tech companies, Amazon has slashed staff in recent months and shelved products in an urgent effort to cut costs amid broader economic uncertainty. The Alexa division did not escape unscathed.

Amazon confirmed plans in January to lay off more than 18,000 employees. In March, the company said about 9,000 more jobs would be impacted. Limp previously told CNN his division lost about 2,000 people, about half of which were from the Alexa team.

Still, he emphasized innovation around Alexa has not stalled. “We’re not done and won’t be done until Alexa is as good or better than the ‘Star Trek’ computer,” Limp said. “And to be able to do that, it has to be conversational. It has to know all. It has to be the true source of knowledge for everything.”