Amazon opens up Alexa's brain to developers

Amazon just added the artificial intelligence behind its Echo speakers to the list of services it offers to businesses. 

The company introduced a new service Wednesday called Lex, which allows developers and businesses to tap into the AI smarts that power Alexa for their own bots.

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Lex is currently in a preview phase, open to developers in Northern Virginia, but Amazon plans to expand its reach in the future. 

The service allows developers to create conversational bots for Facebook Messenger (and soon Slack and Twilio) that are powered by the same speech recognition and natural language processing used for Alexa in Amazon's Echo devices. It also ties into other Amazon Web Services (AWS) tools so developers who are already using Amazon-hosted services can more easily create a bot experience. 

Amazon says Lex is free for the first year (up to 10,000 text requests and 5,000 speech requests per month) and developers will be charged a flat rate based on the number of text and speech requests a month afterward ($4.00 per 1,000 speech requests $0.75 per 1,000 text.)

For Amazon, Lex offers a few benefits. In terms of competing with Google and others, the service offers a way for Amazon to increase its AI footprint (and profits) even if people don't buy their hardware. It also gives Amazon a foothold in the growing bot ecosystem, which has so far been dominated by Facebook. By providing an enterprise-level service that can easily plug into Facebook or other consumer platforms, Amazon is better positioned to secure an early (and potentially lucrative) spot powering businesses’ bots as companies look to take advantage of chat-based applications.

The news also comes on the heels of reports that Amazon is working on a new premium Echo device with a 7-inch touchscreen that will cost more than its current $180 flagship speaker.

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