Alexa, play Twenty One Pilots.
This is a phrase not heard once in my house prior to June 13, but has been one of the most uttered phrases since. Twenty One Pilots is my 13 year old son’s favorite band, and Alexa is the default name given to Amazon’s Echo….device.
I hesitated typing that last sentence because, what is the Echo, exactly? My wife stumbled across it while looking for my birthday present. She was looking for a quality Bluetooth speaker for me, and the Echo seemed to be coming up a lot in online discussions. Yes, it’s a speaker, and you can pair it to your phone or music device, but calling it a speaker seems to do it a disservice. In fact, the Echo seems to be designed to run more from Amazon’s extensive and continually expanding ecosystem than when any particular personal device, and I think that’s a smart play for both Amazon and consumers.
The key feature is Alexa’s (as she will henceforth be referred to) voice recognition and integration into both the Amazon ecosystem and the broader Internet. Most people have at least some experience with Apple’s Siri or Google’s Google Now. Those features are nice, but picture yourself, instead of shouting into your smartphone mic, simply uttering the question as you walk around the room, and then having a voice rain down the answer upon you as if manna was falling from Heaven itself. Or picture yourself getting a real urge to hear some 90’s music. Or wondering what the weather is like where your parents live in Minnesota. Or what the traffic conditions are on your morning commute. Or what the latest NPR news headlines are. That’s Alexa. That’s all Alexa.
I’ll be honest, I wasn’t really sure what I was getting when we ordered it. I don’t think a written description really encapsulates the power of the device, and perhaps that’s why the Echo was a bit slow to take off. It’s hard to picture how you’ll use it until you start using it.
Alexa, what’s on my calendar for tomorrow?
Alexa, add sugar to the shopping list
Alexa, how old is Robert Downey Jr.?
I jokingly tweeted the above after just a few hours messing around, but the sentiment is real. I feel like Amazon has finally started to put the pieces together. We’re on our way to natural AI interfaces, and Jarvis is just around the corner.
The hardware itself is fairly sparse. It’s a little black speaker/tower with two buttons at the top, a microphone toggle and an “action” button that can be used to wake the device or perform the setup. Amazon has developed a companion smartphone app that is required to configure the device settings (such as Wi-Fi and some preferences). Those shopping lists I mentioned earlier? They’re in the Alexa app. So, when you tell Alexa to add something to one of the lists (either shopping or to-do), you can access those lists via your phone at a later time. The app also includes your history of voice queries, which are no doubt being fed directly into a big customer profile database somewhere in Amazon’s data center. But, on the not so pessimistic side, you can look at each query and tell Alexa whether what she heard was actually what was said, in effect training her to better recognize your commands along the way.
One problem with Alexa existing in a household with six people is that there are sometimes competing requests, and she will comply with each one. It’s happened more than once that one kid will come into the room partway through a song that has been requested by another kid and “overrule” the currently playing tune. Alexa isn’t a parent, she won’t say “you wait until your brother’s song has finished, then you can request one”. She just happily does what she’s told, despite the obvious foreseeable ramifications. Another possible long-term negative is how interacting with AI will eventually affect our interactions with other humans. We are already trending towards a time when manners and human decency are dispensed of when our communication medium consists of only text and avatars. How will our communication with one another change in the future when basic politeness is no longer required while interacting with AI? Are we training ourselves out of respectful interactions? It’s an interesting line of thought that only time will be able to answer.
Despite the probability of future dystopia, I’m still really excited about the possibilities this technology has opened up. So much so, that I’ve started researching smart watches that integrate with Alexa (to date, there is only one). I’ve never been too excited about the smart watch concept, considering it seems like a very expensive way to not have to reach into my pocket, but this particular CoWatch seems to be headed in a better direction. It’s less reliant on your phone and more reliant on the Internet. I’m not sure that it’s 100% there yet (I’d still like to see GPS functionality so that you wouldn’t need to carry your phone at all when running/walking), but I’m starting to feel like wearables might finally be crossing into “interesting” territory, thanks to more of a focus on a specific set of functions instead of trying to extend all smart phone features onto a tiny little display.
At any rate, I’m still really happy with the purchase. The device itself costs a mere $180, or roughly the same amount that you’d pay for a mid-range Klipsch Bluetooth speaker. Not bad for a voice enabled personal assistant from the Jetsons. Hang on folks, we’re just a few short years away from accidentally creating Ultron!
Alexa, publish post.