Alan Weissberger Cloud Computing Smart Home

Alexa Lost Her Voice on Friday and Isn’t Learning as Advertised

Amazon’s digital assistant Alexa went down on Friday while speaking the wrong error messages to customers.  During a ½ hour span Friday morning, I heard the following from Alexa on my Echo device, Amazon Fire Tablet and Fire TV stick:

 “I’m having trouble understanding right now… try again later.”

“Your echo device lost its WiFi connection. For help, check the Alexa app.”

“Your WiFi is not connected to the Internet.”

Power recycling/restart didn’t help.  Neither did re-initializing WiFi for the Echo device via the Alexa app on my tablet.

When I called the Amazon support telephone hotline, I was put on hold for ~5 minutes before a live person (who identified herself as a contractor) said “Amazon’s servers are down and won’t be up for another 24 to 48 hours.”  Fortunately, she was wrong as Alexa came back up early afternoon Friday.

Brett Sappington discussing voice and its role as a user interface in the connected home.
Interview with Parks Associates’ Sappington on Alex Ecosystem

It appears that the outage was caused by a network problem in AWS US East-1 in Northern Virginia. According to Down Detector, users began reporting problems with Alexa around 9:30 am ET. AWS Direct Connect customers including Atlassian, Twilio and MongoDB have also reported problems.

AWS Direct Connect is used by hybrid cloud customers to set up a secure connection between AWS infrastructure and the customer’s on-premises infrastructure. This is often faster and cheaper than connecting to AWS over the public internet.

CRN reported the following:

“All AWS services had recovered by midday Friday after outages made several enterprise collaboration products choppy, disabled Amazon’s Alexa home assistant and interrupted hybrid cloud deployments.

The public cloud leader experienced two distinct problems in its North Virginia data center—one with the Direct Connect dedicated link to two large colocation operators on the East Coast; the other involving a power outage at a peering facility connected to its internal network, according to the AWS service health dashboard.”

The Alexa outage affected many customers.  At least 50 devices are now powered by Alexa, and more keep coming. They include dozens of Echo-like smart speakers, home thermostats, light fixtures, dashboard cameras, smartphones, headphones, a smoke alarm and a very strange robot.

Amazon has yet to issue a statement on the system outage that knocked out Alexa. In my case it only effected streaming music and voice search (which is not very good and can’t hold a candle to Google’s Voice Search).  However, those who use Alexa to control their “connected home,” were shut down and had to exercise manual control (the old-fashioned way).  Do you really want to ask Alexa to control your compatible smart lights, switches and smart plugs?

This was not the first time I’ve experienced Alexa outages and heard those same WRONG error messages.  In fact there have been sporadic, intermittent outages several times each month for almost one year.  Seems like they are getting worse.  There were no outages in the first month or two on my Echo device.

As for as I can determine, communications to/from Alexa’s voice recognition compute servers and the rest of the Internet is not always available.  When that connection is lost, Alexa says “Your WiFi is not connected,” even though my WiFi/Internet is working perfectly on my PCs and smartphone.

Another less frequent problem is that the Alexa voice recognition server loses its connection with 3rd party servers that should be connected via Alexa app settings, e.g. music streaming services (Pandora, Sirius XM, Spotify, etc), podcasts (NY Times, WSJ, etc), customized Flash Briefing, and others.  When that problem occurs, Alexa is still connected to the public internet as it can provide weather reports, sports scores and Wikipedia look up information.  But none of the external, Alexa app enabled services are available.   One way of resolving that problem is to unplug the Echo device, sign out and then sign in to the Alexa app, then replug the Echo device which restarts it and re-establishes the WiFi/Internet connection.  When an Amazon Alexa tech support guy walked me through that procedure, the 3rd party services became available again.

Separately, I’m very disappointed that Alexa is not learning, even though I enabled that voice recognition skill via the Alexa app.  Most of my queries result in answers like these:

“I don’t know that one.”

“I’m not sure.”

“Maybe this will answer your question…..” (95% of the time it doesn’t)

When you ask Alexa “What do you know?” she says “I know lots of things… I’m always learning.”  That latter statement doesn’t appear to be true.

For example, one needs to state PRECISELY what you want Alexa to do in the correct word sequence.  If you say “Play Luna on Sirius XM radio,” you’ll get that satellite radio channel.  But if you say “Play Luna on XM radio”….or “on XM Sirius radio” Alexa says:  “ I couldn’t find Luna on……”  And that’s after hundreds of similar (my) voice requests.

According to a recent New York Times article, Amazon is still the undisputed leader of the voice recognition digital assistant market.

There’s a lot of money in the voice game. For Amazon, Alexa’s rise could lead to billions of dollars in additional sales to its store, Mark Mahaney, an analyst at RBC Capital Markets, predicted recently. Amazon is thus not the only company chasing the dream of everywhere voice computing.

Google, which is alive to the worry that Alexa will outpace it in the assistant game, is also offering its Google Assistant to other device makers. Though Amazon remains the leader in the business, there’s some evidence that Google’s devices gained market share over the holidays. (Apple, which just released a $349 smart speaker, HomePod, does not seem to be aiming for voice ubiquity.)


If Amazon is to retain its lead on Google, Apple, Samsung and others in the voice recognition/smart speaker/digital assistant market, the company urgently needs to provide more solid and robust connectivity with its customers and 3rd party websites.  It also needs to improve the advertised “learning” capabilities of Alexa, based on the voice recognition skill enabled by the Alexa app.

Author Alan Weissberger

By Alan Weissberger

Alan Weissberger is a renowned researcher in the telecommunications field. Having consulted for telcos, equipment manufacturers, semiconductor companies, large end users, venture capitalists and market research firms, we are fortunate to have his critical eye examining new technologies.

7 replies on “Alexa Lost Her Voice on Friday and Isn’t Learning as Advertised”

Thanks Alan for telling your Alexa story and putting it in the context of the bigger picture regarding the importance of a robust back-end infrastructure. As we become more and more dependent upon natural language interfaces, the reliability of the telecommunications and cloud infrastructure will become like water and electricity, in terms of maintaining a functioning society.

This is a trite statement, but, as with those critical infrastructures, security is paramount; security of the home network, the last-mile and the cloud infrastructure hosting the brains of services like Alexa.

On a personal note, I still am reluctant to put a voice-enabled device in my home, as its brings to mind Orwell’s 1984 . The day when there is no longer a choice of whether we have microphones installed in the home may not be too far in the future, as there are already things like light switches with built in microphones. It is not to difficult to imagine a future where you can’t buy an appliance without a microphone.

Alexa is not smart at all. She learns very little if anything. IMHO, her brain needs to be rewired. For example:
-I asked her who won the civil war and she could not answer.
-Several times I’ve asked her to play “Lincoln Portrait” by Aaron Copeland which she sometimes can play, but most of the times says “I can’t find ………”
-And just now (after not being able to play Lincoln Portrait) she said: “Here’s a radio station you might like…. 1970’s rock.” Which was totally unrelated to my Lincoln Portrait request.

Page 1 of April 1, 2018 NY Times: Hey, Alexa, What Can You Hear? And What Will You Do With It?

Apple and Google have filed patent applications that outline an array of possibilities for how Personal Digital Assistants like Amazon Echo/Alexa could monitor more of what users say and do. That information could then be used to identify a person’s desires or interests, which could be mined for ads and product recommendations.
UPDATE: Alexa still isn’t learning as advertised such that if you don’t utter your request in the EXACT word sequence, she will likely get it wrong and say “Sorry, I don’t know that one” or “Sorry, I’m not sure.”
Meanwhile, the backend communications outages continue- between the Amazon data center server where Alexa voice recognition resides and the non Amazon data center that’s streaming music or reporting news events.

Another perspective is , how nice is it we get to complain about these 1st world problems.. Much better than not having enough food like in some 3rd world countries , never mind electricity…

One of the interesting questions about these natural language assistants is how they will affect us in the long-term. My reluctance to procuring one is that it will make me lazier than I already am and will allow me to think even less than I already do. Having said that, the impact it will have on children will be even more interesting. I heard from a mom the other day with a 13-month toddler and his first words were mom, dad and Alexa. One could write a book speculating about the implications of a mind that forms with all the knowledge in the world at their beck and call.

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