Hey, Alexa: Amazon’s virtual assistant becomes software developers’ intern

    1 of 1 2 of 1

      It might have come under fire recently for recording a couple’s private conversation and sending it to another user, and inappropriately laughing when owners turn off the lights, but Amazon’s virtual assistant, Alexa, is still a blessing for handling basic requests. Able to set reminders, turn up the thermostat, and even start your car engine, the technology is a great excuse for individuals to never get off the couch again.

      Academics at UBC, however, have found a more productive use for the device.

      When software engineers create new projects, they use many tools to help edit, build, and test the systems they create. A single task involves working with millions of lines of computer code, and requires developers to run the script through various mediums. With each tool using a unique syntax that makes it difficult to slot each one together, it can be complicated to switch between them during the development process.

      Master’s student Nick Bradley, along with computer science professors Reid Holmes and Thomas Fritz, decided to explore whether Amazon’s Alexa could help speed up things up. Suggesting that software engineers could use simple, conversational language to help the virtual assistant complete some of their tasks, the trio set to work repurposing the device as their new intern.

      First, the team had to figure out the steps taken by most engineers when programming, and build a system to help automate them. By creating the program Devy, the team taught Alexa some key phrases and mapped different commands to the work. Next, they asked 21 engineers from local companies to try out their new development, and see if it saved them time in their creation process.

      More than just a tongue-in-cheek experiment, the research was part of a larger effort to understand how software engineers approach their work.

      “The pace of change in the software field is so fast that engineers don’t have time to be introspective and think about the way they work,” Holmes says in a press release. “Our job in academia is to step back and really think about how we can better support engineers to quickly and correctly build the kinds of software we depend upon in our modern society. Systems keep getting larger and more complex and using personal assistants could be one way to help developers be more effective within this fast-paced environment.”

      Although their first imagined use-case helps software engineers, the researchers suggest that the Alexa virtual assistant could be programmed to offer a similar service to other industries, such as medicine, law, or accounting.

      “You can imagine a situation where a lawyer is reading a legal brief,” he continues, “and asks Alexa to find relevant cases on similar topics to help with research."

      As automation becomes more prevalent in the workplace, the future will likely be filled with new tools to make work more streamlined and efficient. If one of those happens to be Alexa, fingers crossed Amazon has fixed the creepy laugh.

      Follow Kate Wilson on Twiter @KateWilsonSays