Inventing Alexa with Jeff Adams of Cobalt Speech

Tue Oct 09 2018 (26:00)

In this episode, Teri welcomes Jeff Adams, CEO of Cobalt Speech & Language, and often labelled “The Alexa Inventor”, to discuss how Amazon created the Alexa Voice Service.

Welcome Jeff Adams!

Jeff Adams has been involved with speech technology in one way or another for over 24 years. He got his start by working for a small speech-technology company in Boston, and through a series of acquisitions, ended up working at Nuance, the company behind the successful speech-recognition app Dragon. He left Nuance in 2009 to join a voice-message transcription start-up. That was a turning point. The start-up got Amazon’s attention when they found out the start-up’s technology could match the accuracy of human transcribers. Amazon acquired them and and put them to work on what would become Alexa.

How do you feel about Jeff Adams being labeled Alexa’s creator?

Amazon already had a vision for what they wanted.

Jeff says he did not invent Alexa. When Amazon got him and his team to Seattle, they explained, behind closed doors and in quiet voices, the ideas behind what would become the Echo. Amazon already had a vision for what they wanted.

Jeff’s first response was, “This is not possible”. According to him, the technology just wasn’t far along enough to allow it. At that time, the Echo’s speaker only worked if you were no more than 5 feet away from it. Amazon wanted it to work across a room. The main problem was that as we speak our voices are carried through different paths; it rarely follow a direct line. It bounces off walls and screens, and basically any surface reverberates and then reaches the other person, or in this case, the speaker. Jeff points out that, unlike machines, our brains are naturally good at picking up and merging all these signals into a coherent sound.

Jeff and his team apologized to Amazon, letting them know that they had wasted their money acquiring the start-up. But Amazon persisted and wanted the team to continue trying. The team working on project Doppler, the Echo’s code-name, quickly grew to around 60 people with talent from all over the world. The project ended up taking three years instead of one.

Jeff recounts how Amazon had a house set up to test it. They would invite people to try it out, while the Echo laid safely hidden behind a screen. There were no mentions of Amazon or the Echo, and people were not told what the recordings of their voices would be used for, adding to the secrecy, and excitement, of the future product.

Why did you decide to leave Amazon?

Jeff says it was nothing personal. He loved everyone in the Alexa team. It was a matter of logistics. It was a two-hour commute from where he lived, in and out of Boston. Jeff also says he was managing teams in Germany, California and England, so he was constantly on the road. He could not keep it up for that long. It was too much of a drain. He left one week after the Echo launched.

With his new company, Jeff says, he hopes to help companies that do not have an astronomical budget but that still want to experiment with voice and speech technology. He started Cobalt in 2014 and they are now a team of more than 30 scientists and engineers helping deliver speech and voice solutions to up-and-coming companies.

List of resources mentioned in this episode: