The college campus, historical land of creative thought and opportunity, is often a keystone element in stories of modern-day innovation. Steve Jobs dropped out of Reed College to create Apple Computers, all while sneaking into lectures unofficially. Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard to co-found Microsoft in his garage. Mark Zuckerberg has almost the exact same story. But Jeff Bezos wasn’t so fortunate — he actually finished school.
Amazon claims to be “consistently impressed with the ingenuity of university students,” and is taking big steps to tap into the minds of young scholars for the knowledge and creativity they’re famous for. In a recent developer blog post, the company announced that they have “selected 18 universities from around the world as recipients of the 2018-2019 Amazon Alexa Fellowship, fueling the future of conversational AI research, education, and entrepreneurship.” The company is funding student scientists and entrepreneurs with an allocated $200 million via the Alexa Fund, giving Graduate Fellowship participants cash to cover tuition as well as a “competitive stipend and mentoring” from an Alexa scientist to work on conversational AI.
Alexa, when is my assignment due?
College students are driving Alexa’s growth beyond the scope of innovation and development — many of them are simply voice assistant users. The retailer has been pushing “Off to College” sales on the homepage of Amazon.com, and in a scroller of back-to-school products, the entire first row consists of seven Alexa-enabled Amazon devices.
Even if a student doesn’t buy an Alexa-enabled device, they might end up with one anyway — universities are starting to include smart speakers in dorm rooms. Saint Louis University in Missouri, for example, has announced that every dorm room on campus will come standard with an Echo Dot. The devices will be hooked up to Alexa for Business, giving the university management of the devices, allowing for custom skills and campus-wide changes. According to SLU, Alexa is able to provide students with information about over 100 specific things, including:
- When the library closes
- Where certain buildings are
- How to drop a class
- Billiken athletics’ games
- Major speakers on campus
- Student events and organizations
- Service and mission opportunities
According to SLU, “student response to the idea has been positive.” However, the public may have a contrasting opinion, as the university’s official video for the project has over two-thirds downvotes, and many comments make reference to privacy concerns. The university promises privacy, however, stating that “this system is not tied to individual accounts and does not maintain any personal information for any of our users, so all use currently is anonymous,” and claims that “neither Alexa nor the Alexa for Business management system maintains recordings of any questions that are asked.”
In addition to Saint Louis University, Northeastern University and Arizona State University have integrated Echo devices into dorm rooms, with Arizona’s devices donated directly by Amazon in 2017. The ASU dorms that Alexa inhabits are specifically for engineering students, and students are provided with developer kits to encourage the creation of new technologies.
“Alexa Everywhere” is the goal for Amazon’s voice assistant, according to the Alexa Voice Service Principal of Business Development, Mariel van Tatenhove. So far, this ambitious vision has some credibility: Alexa can be found in third-party speakers, cars, laptops, Xboxes, smart homes, hotels, and smartphones. Expanding Alexa’s footprint through college dorms and student-led engineering brings the company one step closer to their vision.
Alexa is a keystone in Amazon’s expanding ecosystem. Being a frequent Alexa user incentivizes customers to buy-in to other Amazon products and services, like Amazon Prime, as the Alexa experience is enhanced greatly with a Prime subscription. As we’ve seen, Prime Members across the board have been shown to spend nearly twice as much as non-members. And, the deeper a customer is integrated into Amazon’s ecosystem, the more they end up spending on the marketplace — Echo owners spend on average $400 more than Prime members per year.
Average yearly dollar amount spent on Amazon.com
Amazon is not only utilizing the creativity and intellect of young developers, but similar to their strategy with smart homes, Twitch, and movie theaters, is likely planning to leverage universities as a funnel to gain Prime subscribers from a growing variety of demographics, and as a result, benefit from more sales, more data, and more customer loyalty.
Oh, and one more thing — all college students get their first six months of Prime for free.
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