Yandex is virtually unknown here in the States, but it’s become something approaching a Russian Google (and Amazon and Uber) in the 20 years since its founding. The company controls around 65-percent of search engine market share in its home country, and has branched out into practically every other software category imaginable, so a smart assistant was a bit of a no-brainer.
The company has been using some form of AI for a number of different tasks, including product recommendations, but Alice marks a more outward-facing take on the category. The assistant is something akin to a Russian Alexa or Siri, pulling in the company’s various product offerings, including weather, news, maps and the like.
Yandex’s head Machine Intelligence and Research Division, Misha Bilenko, told TechCrunch that the tech is a culmination of tech the company has been working on for some time, including a voice search feature that was already present in the app.
“Over the past year, we’ve been tying it all together with a new system that includes dialogue management,” he says. “In effect, if you have a high quality search engine, you’re already able to answer questions pretty well.”
The company claims the assistant “demonstrates near-human levels of speech recognition accuracy,” which appears to mean that it’s capable of responding to more casual queries and picking up information based on contextual clues, i.e.,
For instance, when a user asks Alice, “What’s the weather in Moscow?” and then follows with a question in slang asking, “And what about Peter?” Alice understands the intent and provides the weather forecast for St. Petersburg.
Only, you know, in Russian. It’s a tough trick for a smart assistant — though a number of English language companies like Google and Apple have done a decent job cracking it on their own offerings. Even so, that still probably qualifies Alice as the most capable Russian language assistant of its kind.
One of the differentiators is a feature called “Chit-Chat,” an attempt to make the assistant more conversational. It’s mostly a novelty at this point, but it’s an attempt to make the whole thing more lifelike.
Interestingly Alice’s voice is provided by Tatyana Shitova, who dubbed in for Scarlett Johansson in the Russian language version of Her. That ought to go a ways toward fulfilling any sort of near future dystopian fantasies one might have for the assistant.
Bilenko says the company will have to remain vigilant with the Chit-Chat feature, given the internet’s precedent for making everything terrible, as was the case with Microsoft’s Tay AI, which was quickly turned into a steaming pile of racist garbage.
The feature is available now for the Yandex mobile app and will be coming to its mobile browser. The company wouldn’t confirm rumors that it’s working on something akin to an Echo/Google Home featuring the assistant, though Bilenko added, “none of these products are on the Russian market, so it would be very silly of us not to think about it hard.”