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Next List 2017: 20 People Who Are Creating the Future

Written by techgoth

Our Robots Are Powered by Poets and Musicians

Beth Holmes, Farah Houston, Michelle Riggen-­Ransom

Holmes Knowledge Manager | Alexa Information team

Houston Senior Manager | Alexa Personality team

Riggen-­Ransom Managing Editor | Alexa Personality team

Behind your high tech digital assistant is a band of liberal arts majors. A trio of women shape the personality of Amazon’s Alexa, the AI-powered device used by tens of millions of consumers worldwide: Michelle Riggen-­Ransom, who has an MFA in creative writing, composes the bot’s raw responses; Farah Houston, a psychology grad specializing in personality science, ensures that those responses dovetail with customers’ expectations; and Beth Holmes, a mathematician with expertise in natural language processing, decides which current events are woven into Alexa’s vocabulary, from the Super Bowl to the Oscars. “The commonality is that most of us have been writers and have had to express humor in writing,” Houston says. Riggen-­Ransom oversees a group of playwrights, poets, fiction authors, and musicians who complete weekly writing exercises that are incorporated into Alexa’s persona. (The bot’s disposition is broadly defined in a “personality document,” which informs the group’s responses.) The content is then workshopped among the team; much of it ends up on the cutting room floor. Alexa’s temperament can swing from practical and direct to whimsical and jokey. The art is in striking the right balance, especially when it comes to addressing sensitive topics. “Our overall approach when talking to people about politics, sex, or religion has been to divert with humor,” Houston says. But thanks in part to her female-led team, the bot won’t stand for insults. “We work hard to always portray Alexa as confident and empowered,” Houston says. It takes a village to raise a fake lady. —­Davey Alba


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