Amazon’s Alexa will now guess what skills you want to use based on your questions

Finding new ways to use Amazon’s Alexa has always been a bit of a pain. Amazon boasts that its AI assistant has more than 100,000 skills, but most are garbage and the useful ones are far from easy to discover. Today, though, Amazon announced it’s launched a new way to surface skills: by guessing what users are after when they talk to Alexa about other tasks.

The company refers to this process as “[inferring] customers’ latent goals.” By this, it means working out any questions that are implied by other queries. Amazon gives the example of a customer asking “How long does it take to steep tea?” to which Alexa will answer “five minutes” before asking the follow-up: ”Would you like me to set a timer for five minutes?”

This all sounds well and good, but it’s not hard to imagine this feature (which is already available to Alexa customers in English in the United States) potentially becoming quite annoying. If Alexa infers a user’s intent incorrectly and suggests an unwanted skill, then that person is bound to feel irritated, as if they’re being advertised to by their digital butler.

Amazon gave The Verge a number of example scenarios of follow-up questions (below), and said that other skills that feed into the system include Bark Like a Dog, Earth Cam, Harry Potter Trivia, Historical Voices, Slow Speller, Xbox, and Zoo Keeper. Some of these scenarios will be useful for users, but others less so. It’s a bit of a mixed bag really.


Customer: What’s the stock price of {X}?
Alexa: When the market closed on Monday, {X} traded at $201.15, down 1.99% since the previous close.
Alexa: Would you like to know the intraday high for {X} from the CNBC skill?

TED Talks

Customer: What happened today in history?
Alexa: On May 18, 1980…
Alexa: By the way, I can search for talks on history in the TED Talk skill. Want me to pull them up?

Ultimate History Quiz

Customer: When did the second world war end?
Alexa: The Second World War ended on September 2, 1945.
Alexa: Want to test your history knowledge with Ultimate History Quiz?

Whether this new function will be useful or irritating will depend on its implementation, but it’s part of Amazon’s long-term goal to make talking to Alexa more natural. Earlier this year, the company announced new abilities for the AI assistant including the ability to ask clarifying questions, changing the tone of its voice, and a new “conversation” mode in which Alexa engages with multiple participants.

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The $1,799 MacBook Pro 13 vs. the $650 Acer Swift 3: Guess who wins?

Apple’s MacBook Pro 13 just came out, and it already has a tough adversary. That foe is not the usual high-end, high-priced Windows workhorse like the Dell XPS 13 we just tested, as great as it is. No, the reason Apple should worry is because based on our sister site Macworld’s preliminary performance tests, this $1,799 premium laptop could be lapped by the $650 Acer Swift 3.

That’s not a typo. The Acer Swift 3 costs just six hundred fifty dollars. But this budget laptop has a secret weapon: AMD’s Ryzen 7 4700U. When we reviewed the Acer Swift 3, it surpassed all expectations by keeping pace with laptops far bigger and more expensive. And sorry to say, the MacBook Pro 13 is in the same pickle as those other powerhouses. Keep reading and weep, Apple.

13 inch macbook pro open Apple

It’s pretty, but is it fast?

What’s inside the MacBook Pro 13

The MacBook Pro 13’s spec list is first-class all the way, starting with a 10th-gen Core i5-1038NG7 with a base clock of 2GHz and boost clock of 3.8GHz. You’ve probably never heard of the chip before, and neither have we. You can’t even find it in Intel’s official database of CPUs. All we know is it’s an Ice Lake chip built on Intel’s most advanced 10nm process. It features four cores with Hyper-Threading and Iris Plus graphics. We can’t confirm it, but we strongly believe it to be a 28-watt TDP chip, which means it can generate nearly twice the heat of a standard 15-watt TDP Ice Lake chip and therefore, technically, run faster.

The rest of the MacBook Pro 13 is equally luxurious, with four Thunderbolt 3 ports, a beautiful 2560×1600-resolution panel, 16GB of LPDDR4X/3733, and a 512GB SSD. Oddly, Apple gives you only Wi-Fi 5, which is inferior to Wi-Fi 6 when you’re using a Wi-Fi 6 router. Hey, but you do get that OLED Touch Bar that Apple users love to hate. All this can be had for a mere $1,799. It’s about as expensive and refined as a European performance car with bespoke leather interior.

acer swift 1 Gordon Mah Ung

The Acer Swift 3 costs just $650 but gives you an 8-core Ryzen 7 CPU and Radeon graphics.

What happens though, if you’re at a stoplight with your fine European performance car, and a primer-painted Datsun 510 pulls up and revs its engine? That would be the Acer Swift 3, a 2.6-pound, 14-inch laptop with Ryzen 7 4700U, 8GB of LPDDR4X/3733 memory, 512GB SSD, and Wi-Fi 6. Using published performance data, we can actually see what would happen.

MacBook Pro 13 vs. Swift 3 on Geekbench

The benchmark we have now is Geekbench 5. It’s a popular test that measures multi-core and single-core performance using various synthetic loops, which developer Primate Labs has modeled on real application use.

In Geekbench 5’s single-core performance test, the MacBook Pro 13’s Core i5-1068NG7 pulls out the win. That’s no surprise, because Intel’s most advanced 10th-gen chip has many under-the-hood enhancements which Geekbench also takes advantage of. The Intel-powered Mac, in other words, has a decent edge here and gets to the next stoplight first. In real life, this might translate into a small edge for the Intel-based Mac in photo editing, browsing, or other optimized code that uses a single CPU core.

swift 3 ryzen vs macbook pro 13 2020 geekbench 1t IDG

Geekbench 5 gives the MacBook Pro 13 and its Core i5 the lead over the Ryzen-powered Acer Swift 3.

Geekbench 5 also measures multi-core performance. The Acer Swift 3’s 8 cores (even if they don’t have SMT turned on) easily outrun the MacBook Pro 13’s 4 cores. This likely means the MacBook Pro 13 will be eating the Acer Swift 3’s dust in video encoding, 3D modelling, or just about anything that relies on multi-core performance. 

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