Alexa for Business: What it does, how to use it

Voice-activated virtual assistants are showing up at home, in the car and – increasingly – in the office. Amazon hopes to further that trend by targeting Alexa for Business for the workplace. Here’s what it is and how it works.

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One of the issues is that conversation data will travel to the cloud, in this case Amazon Web Service servers, where the spoken word is converted to text – a factor businesses will have to consider before rolling out Echo devices across their properties. It is a particular issue for those in heavily regulated industries, such as healthcare, said Goertz, where privacy is important (and regulated), or legal environments, where client-attorney relationships are subject to strict privacy rules.

“So we still have to discuss and overcome privacy concerns as a primary barrier to adoption for services like Alexa for Business,” Goertz said.

“As the Alexa [device] would have to capture the entire discussion, interpret in order to better predict and build more contextual response, companies may be concerned about sharing data on the cloud,” said Srinivasan. “In particular, with the arrival of General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), A.I.-driven services would find this as the biggest hurdle for large-scale penetration.”  

Davis said data privacy has been fundamental to the development of Alexa for Business from the start. “Privacy can't be bolted on as the last feature you'd put into this,” he said.

He pointed to AWS’s history of working with large customers to process significant volumes of business data. “At AWS, customer trust is of the utmost importance to our continued success. Getting privacy right takes careful attention, but our focus on the customer makes it easier to make good decisions.”

Privacy must be thought of as a series of layers, as opposed to a single solution for every customer, he said. With this in mind, all of Amazon’s Echo devices contain “multiple layers of security.” They include:

  • An on/off button that physically disconnects the microphone and makes it “very easy for customers to control” when devices are switched on and waiting for the wake word - “Alexa.”
  • On-device keyword spotting that won’t send any audio to the cloud until it detects a customer speaking the wake word.
  • A blue light denoting that audio is being streamed to the Amazon cloud.
lenovo tab 4 alexa mute Michael Simon/IDG

You can mute Alexa's microphone's by tapping the top button like on an Echo.

Davis added that voice recordings from shared devices managed by Alexa for Business can be deleted at any time using the Alexa for Business management console.

Employees that have enrolled their personal accounts can also view and delete individual voice recordings via the Alexa companion. But IT admins cannot access voice recordings associated with employees’ personal devices, he said.

More detailed information on data privacy and security features is available on the Alexa for Business FAQ page.

How CIOs view virtual personal assistants like Alexa

Since the launch of Alexa for Business, senior IT leaders have expressed interest in the possibilities of voice activated virtual assistants alongside any potential data privacy concerns.

“We see virtual assistants as inevitable in the workplace,” said Joel Jacobs, vice president, CIO and CSO at MITRE Corporation in Bedford, Mass. “Home experience will set the expectation for voice interaction, inquiry, and control of other [IoT] devices. I think that soon people will expect that if they can have these capabilities at home, why not the office?”

“Intelligent assistants have already proven they can be of good use today and [I] see potential for greater use tomorrow,” said Jim Rinaldi, CIO and director for IT at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

He said voice interfaces can save time compared with keyboard inputs and allow multitasking in a more convenient way. “I envision having intelligent assistants access the various dashboards I have to answer questions [rather than] having to access the dashboard every time I need information with a computer in front of me.”

Tom Cullen, CIO at Driscoll’s, the $3.5 billion supplier of fresh berries, envisioned an Alexa-type device handling user self-service requests – as opposed to logging a traditional help desk ticket for issues such as password changes – or being used to enable a workflow typically dependent on another staff member.

Virtual assistants could also be “leveraged for application support-type requests that a quick answer or direction on where to go for more info could be helpful,” he said.

Tom Anfuso, senior vice president and CIO at National Life Group, said the company, based in Montpelier, Vt., prototyped a simple proof-of-concept Alexa skill for its insurance agents last year. “We will likely continue working with Alexa in the context of our innovation R&D program this year,” he said.

Although there is no firm plan at the moment to go beyond the concept, Anfuso said National Life Group is “generally bullish on the growing Alexa ecosystem.”

There are still challenges to overcome, however. Said Cullen: “The main drawback [for virtual assistants] is security.

“The reason I don’t have one in my house is that it is always listening and you don’t really know where all of the data is going and what is being done with it,” he said.

How will Alexa for Business evolve?

Because it still is the early days for virtual assistants in the office, there are certain areas where Alexa for Business remains “underdeveloped,” said Goertz.

One is biometric authentication to identify a speaker. “In the enterprise, this will be very useful because biometric authentication could then assign use rights or access rights to certain types of data, based on who the speaker is.”

Another is potential for full integration into enterprise workflows and business apps. “Enterprises invest a lot of money in IaaS – identity as a service infrastructure. If Alexa for Business were able to tap into that, it would be very helpful because then Alexa could assign specific enterprise data, specific enterprise assets to the specific speaker.”

Possibilities include Oracle database access rights or SAP integration, for instance, which is still being worked on and “not fully fledged,” he said. 

Davis said that integration with enterprise apps is very much an area of interest with more to come soon from Amazon on that front. “The next generation of corporate systems and applications will be built using conversational interfaces, and we're just getting started with customers using Alexa for Business in their workplace,” he said.

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