In a surprising move, Amazon has announced it will discontinue its celebrity voices feature for its popular Alexa device. High-profile voices such as Samuel L. Jackson, Shaquille O’Neal, and Melissa McCarthy, which users could previously purchase for a small fee, will no longer be supported on the voice-enabled assistant.
The celebrity voice feature initially launched with a price of $0.99, before later being increased to $4.99. Alexa users could use commands such as “Hey [celebrity name]” to engage with the digital assistant in the distinctive style of Jackson, Shaq, or McCarthy. Users could ask questions, hear jokes, or even listen to a story in the unique voice of their chosen celebrity. However, Amazon has now announced that the voice of Samuel L. Jackson will be the first to cease functionality on the Alexa platform.
“After three years, we’re winding down celebrity voices,” Amazon spokesperson Eric Sveum confirmed in a statement. He reassured that customers would be able to continue using these voices for a limited time and can contact Amazon’s customer service for a refund.
Despite an initial announcement suggesting Jackson’s voice would be supported until April 2023, Sveum has since clarified that users will be able to engage with the star’s voice up until June 7th. The voices of McCarthy and Shaq will continue to be supported until September 30th, 2023.
The celebrity voices feature was first introduced in 2019 with the launch of Samuel L. Jackson’s voice. Unlike the pre-recorded messages used by other digital assistants, Jackson’s responses were generated using Amazon’s neural text-to-speech model, a feature that was later extended to McCarthy and Shaq’s voices in 2021. However, the celebrity voices did have some limitations as they were not compatible with shopping lists, reminders, or other Alexa skills.
Amazon’s decision to discontinue the celebrity voice feature comes amidst broader challenges for the Alexa platform. Reports have suggested that Amazon CEO Andy Jassy has been critically examining the Alexa sector after its operating losses exceeded $5 billion in recent years. Earlier this year, the company laid off 18,000 employees, with 2,000 of these job losses affecting the division responsible for Alexa and Echo products.
There is also speculation that Amazon is planning a significant overhaul of Alexa’s capabilities in response to the rise of language models like OpenAI’s ChatGPT. Amazon is reportedly looking to make Alexa “more proactive and conversational” using its own large language model (LLM). It’s unclear whether the discontinuation of the celebrity voices feature is part of this shift, or simply a result of the costs associated with licensing these famous voices.
As we approach the end of an era for Alexa’s celebrity voices, users who previously purchased this feature are advised to contact Amazon’s customer service for a refund. In the meantime, all eyes will be on Amazon to see how it plans to evolve its voice-enabled assistant in the face of emerging competition and new AI technologies.