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[Discussion] Unplugging the Stars: Amazon Ends Alexa's Celebrity Voices Feature

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Cue the curtain fall, as Amazon waves goodbye to its lineup of celebrity voices on Alexa. Despite initial enthusiasm and purchases from customers, the voices of Hollywood powerhouse Samuel L. Jackson, basketball legend Shaquille O’Neal, and comedic genius Melissa McCarthy are leaving the digital stage.

Once a novel $0.99 feature that later increased to $4.99, Alexa's celebrity voices brought an unexpected twang of star quality to homes. By invoking a simple “Hey [celebrity name]”, Alexa would spring into action, regaling users with jokes, answering queries, or spinning tales in the celebrities' distinctive styles. However, the star-studded affair was short-lived, with Amazon confirming that the feature will soon be discontinued.

“After a three-year journey with our celebrity voices, we're starting the wind-down process,” says Amazon spokesperson Eric Sveum in a statement to the Verge. Despite the feature's discontinuation, users can enjoy these famous voices for a limited time and are eligible for refunds through customer service.

While the curtain close on Jackson's voice will be on June 7th, fans of McCarthy and Shaq will be able to enjoy their voices until September 30th of this year.

These voices, first introduced with Jackson in 2019, were powered by Amazon's neural text-to-speech model. This technology brought a delightful unpredictability to their responses, straying from mere prerecorded phrases. However, they fell short in some areas, not supporting shopping lists, reminders, or skills.

The decision behind this farewell tour remains shrouded in mystery. However, some speculate that this move might reflect wider concerns about the future of Alexa. After all, a Wall Street Journal report highlighted that Amazon CEO Andy Jassy has had the Alexa division under intense scrutiny, especially given its operating losses surged over $5 million in recent years.

Moreover, a wave of layoffs earlier this year, with 2,000 cuts impacting the Alexa and Echo products division, suggests a reshaping of Amazon's strategy. Some reports also hint at an Alexa makeover to compete with rising stars like ChatGPT, with plans to make Alexa more proactive and conversational via Amazon's own large language model (LLM).

As we bid adieu to the star-studded Alexa cast, we're left to wonder whether their exit reflects a too-high price tag for licensing or a strategic shift towards a more proactive, conversation-driven Alexa. Either way, it's clear that Amazon's virtual assistant is on the brink of significant transformation.

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