Amazon's Alexa is going to college in Boston: 'Alexa, when is my tuition due?'
Students at Northeastern University in Boston are getting a little help from a familiar voice: Amazon's Alexa.
In the fall, the university is launching a "skill" on Alexa — software that allows someone to interact with a smart device like an Amazon Echo speaker — called Husky Helper (named for Northeastern's mascot). The goal of the skill is to help students answer questions like "What class do I have next?" and "When is my tuition due?" without having to call the university's staff.
Students will also be able to use the skill via a smartphone. “Northeastern will soon begin to roll out Husky Helper to students, using their personal smartphones and Alexa-enabled mobile apps, Amazon devices, and other conversation-enabled hardware," Northeastern spokesperson Renata Nyul tells CNBC Make It. "It is important that we help provide a convenient experience to our students that allows them to use voice-enabled solutions without tying them to any physical location.”
During a 60-student pilot of the skill in April, the campus call center saw an almost 80 percent reduction in phone requests from the students in the pilot, Somen Saha, the co-creator of the skill, tells CNBC Make It.
When available to the entire student body, "that's a huge resource savings for the university," Saha says.
Saha had the idea while working as senior director of IT at Northeastern (he left the position in March). He realized data about students was kept in a lot of different systems — imagine one database for meal plans, another for tuition and others for academic information — which were troublesome to use.
"One of my tasks was to connect all the disparate systems that the university had," Saha says. Trying to fit all of that data together to give a single and complete picture for each student led Saha to realize something: "First of all, there was no defined product that did that," he says. Then, he wondered, "What do we do with this data now that we have [it]?"
While talking over the problem with his friend and former co-worker Joel Evans — who is recognized by Amazon as an Alexa Champion for being a top developer on the platform — Saha began to think about putting that compiled data into an Alexa skill. Then, students could ask questions and get answers from the database all by themselves, with just their voice.
The pair formed a company in March of 2018 called N-Powered to build the Alexa skill and had a minimum viable product by the end of the month. Saha declined to comment on how much N-Powered was compensated by Northeastern to create the skill.
For the pilot, 64 Northeastern students were given an Amazon Echo Dot smart speaker to test out the Alexa skill.
"They were using it in cases like they just woke up, they were lying in bed, and they would say, 'Alexa, ask Husky Helper what my first class is,'" Evans says. "Or they'd be brushing their teeth, and ask 'Alexa, what does my day look like?'"
Students also used it to ask questions they normally might have to call a faculty member about.
“I used Husky Helper to figure out who my academic advisor was, which was really helpful, because my advisor changed three times throughout the semester,” Northeastern freshman Elizabeth Hilli told the university's newspaper about the pilot.
To get the skill up and running in the pilot, students had to complete several steps to verify their identity and release the rights to their information with a Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act waver, USA Today reports.
Evans tells CNBC Make It that's because privacy and security for students is top of mind, and that N-Powered is using the summer to further its security systems before making Husky Helper available to a broader population of students in the fall. Although students won't be receiving free Echo speakers, as has been reported by some outlets, they can use the skill on their own devices or their smartphone.