Alexa, who are you? New book identifies Amazon’s secret voiceover artist

The voice of Alexa, the virtual assistant developed by Amazon, is provided by Nina Rolle, a Colorado-based voiceover artist, according to a new book.

Amazon has never revealed who provides the default female voice that responds to commands and questions given to Alexa, but the author Brad Stone said he identified the voice as Rolle’s after “canvasing the professional voiceover community” for his new book, Amazon Unbound: Jeff Bezos and the Invention of a Global Empire.

Rolle, who is based in Boulder, has conducted voiceover work for clients including Honda, Jenny Craig and Chase bank. According to Stone’s book, she was selected after Amazon spent months assessing various candidates, with the final choice signed off by Jeff Bezos, the company’s founder.

Stone writes that Rolle said she was unable to talk about the role when he contacted her in February.

Amazon has sold more than 100m devices that carry Alexa’s voice since it first incorporated it into the Amazon Echo device in 2014. The voice has been alluded to in various adverts and comedy sketches ever since.

According to Stone, Bezos initially wanted dozens of different voices to emanate from the device, each for a different task. This was deemed impractical, so Amazon engineers set about finding the right voice that would allow it to compete with Google and Apple in the virtual assistant market.

This process wasn’t without hitches – the book details how Bezos questioned whether developers could gather enough data to successfully launch a well-rounded virtual assistant.

A series of clandestine tests were then conducted in rented apartments and houses in Boston, Seattle and other cities, according to Stone. An army of staffers worked to capture voices and speech patterns in an array of different conditions. This sometimes led to unexpected problems.

“The constant flood of random people into homes and apartments repeatedly provoked suspicious neighbors to call the police,” Stone writes, in an extract published by Wired.

“In one instance, a resident of a Boston condo complex suspected a drug-dealing or prostitution ring was next door and called the cops, who asked to enter the apartment. The nervous staff gave them an elusive explanation and a tour and afterward hastily shut down the site. Occasionally, temp workers would show up, consider the bizarre script and vagueness of the entire affair, and simply refuse to participate.

“One Amazon employee who was annotating transcripts later recalled hearing a temp worker interrupt a session and whisper to whoever he suspected was listening: ‘This is so dumb. The company behind this should be embarrassed!’”


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