By Saritha Rai
Amazon.com Inc. has signed up Bollywood mega star Amitabh Bachchan for its Alexa voice assistant, stealing a march over rivals Apple Inc.’s Siri and Alphabet Inc.’s Google Assistant as a country of 1.3 billion people adapts to voice-enabled internet services.
“The baritone that has enchanted the Indian film industry for over five decades, will soon deliver a unique voice experience to the many Indian customers who use Alexa,” Amazon announced on its India blog on Monday. Users will be able to access “Mr. Bachchan’s iconic voice on Alexa by purchasing the Amitabh Bachchan voice experience,” the blog said.
Bachchan, 77, is often described as India’s answer to Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro combined. His star wattage and deep voice have featured in hundreds of commercials peddling everything from PepsiCo Inc. colas, Cadbury Ltd. chocolates and even a UNICEF-backed polio vaccination campaign.
Bachchan’s instantly-recognizable voice has added to his star status in hit Bollywood movies, a podcast and the Indian version of the television game show “Who wants to be a millionaire?”. On Monday, the actor posted on Instagram, “ek nayi soch…ek nayi drishti…ek nayi disha,” Hindi for what was for him “a new thinking, a new view, a new direction.”
Amazon first used a celebrity voice when Hollywood actor Samuel L. Jackson made a debut on Alexa. It has since added professional voice actors who recite Shakespeare, Mark Twain, proverbs and fables. Last year, rival Google Assistant added the voice of American singer John Legend. The dominant Google voice assistant has yet to debut a celebrity voice in India.
As with Jackson, Amazon will apply neural speech technology to make Alexa sound exactly like Bachchan no matter what question he is answering without needing to record every word in his voice in the studio. Users can buy Bachchan’s voice as a skill to provide weather updates, recite poetry and give advice.
India with over half-a-billion smartphones and some of the cheapest data rates in the world is rapidly adopting voice-enabled services as people take to the internet through voice rather than typing. The market for speech and voice recognition is growing swiftly in India and expected to jump over 40% this year to $ 58.4 million, according to a report by Dentsu Aegis Network’s India unit.
Bachchan’s arrival on Alexa next year is going to thrill one particular Amazon employee: Amit Agarwal, Amazon’s India head and former executive assistant to Jeff Bezos. Agarwal, who is an ardent Bachchan fan,fluently spouts lines from Bachchan’s hit movies and to this day sports Bachchan’s hair style from decades ago.