Why Can’t I Make Up My Own Alexa Wake Word?

I posted about this some time ago, but now that Amazon’s added “computer” as a new wake word in the latest software update (don’t worry, if you haven’t got it yet, it’s on the way) many consumers are again asking, “Why can’t I make up my own Alexa wake word?”


DJ Salinger


The old post goes into some technical detail to fully explain why choosing a good wake word isn’t as easy as you might think, but today I’m just going to reprint the highlights from it.

There’s a reason why it’s taken so long for voice recognition tech to become widely available, and it’s the same reason why voice recognition tech is still imperfect: speech synthesis engineering is HARD. There are people who’ve made entire careers and PhD theses out of studying specific aspects of speech synthesis.

Speech synthesis engineering is hard because even among people who theoretically speak the same language, pronunciations can vary widely. In some parts of the U.S. people barely pronounce certain consonants, while in other parts they’re particularly sharp.

Where I’d say I wash my clothes, my dad would say he “warshes” them, for example. Someone who hears my dad say, “I’m going to do the warsh,” might think he said, “I’m going to do the marsh,” and conclude he’s off to fish some local swamp.

Now add regional and international accents into the mix, and you begin to appreciate the scope of the challenge in getting a machine to match spoken [sounds] to actual words.

The study and analysis of wake words is an entire category of voice synthesis engineering unto itself. Consider this excerpt, “Wake Up Word Recognition” from the book Speech Technologies, ISBN 978-953-307-996-7. This excerpt is from a chapter written by Veton Kepuska:

[A Wake Up Word] has the following unique requirement: Detect a single word or phrase when spoken in an alerting context, while rejecting all other words, phrases, sounds, noises and other acoustic events with virtually 100% accuracy including the same word or phrase of interest spoken in a non-alerting (i.e. referential) context.

Doesn’t sound so simple now, does it? In choosing wake words, Alexa engineers had to find words that were not only easy for the user to pronounce and remember, but were also unusual enough that they’re not commonly used at the start of sentences.

If you want to read a more thorough, but still accessible explanation of how voice recognition tech works, click here to view the original post.


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