Amazon plans to join the custom chip club, with future Alexa devices like the Echo smart speaker reportedly set to be powered by a homegrown AI processor. Efforts to design a special chipset that would give Alexa offline talents, among other improvements, are said to have been underway for the past few years. As well as further differentiating its assistant technology, it could also open Amazon up to a potentially lucrative new market.
Currently, the Amazon Echo range is powered by off-the-shelf chips. The Echo Show, for example, uses an Intel Atom processor, while the Echo Dot relies on a TI chipset. The actual heavy lifting for voice recognition, however, is handled remotely.
Say the “Alexa” trigger word, and while Echo speakers are listening out for that locally, anything you say subsequently is passed to Amazon’s servers. They’re responsible for figuring out what you’re actually requesting, with Alexa’s correct reaction then pushed back to the Echo in your home. It allows Amazon to continuously upgrade and improve what its assistant technology can do and how well it performs, but it also comes with some downsides.
Server-based processing introduces inevitable lag, given the audio has to transferred to the cloud, crunched there, and then Alexa’s response pushed to the speaker. Deprived of a WiFi connection, meanwhile, the Echo is effectively useless. Even basic tasks, like telling the time, are impossible unless the smart speaker is connected.
Amazon’s plan, according to The Information, is to bypass that limitation with some custom silicon of its own. The retail behemoth has reportedly been working on an in-house artificial intelligence chipset for some years now, building on its acquisition of chip design specialist Annapurna Labs in 2015. Although exactly what it’s using them for is unclear at this stage, there are a few clear advantages.