“A glorified Spotify and Audible speaker that sometimes tells the weather.”
ARC’s Editor-in-Chief Dan Rowinski is not a man who minces his words. As somebody who has worked closely with him for well over a year, I am more than aware that he has a wealth of technology and device knowledge that he uses on a daily basis to inform, educate and entertain.
In the last 12 months, Dan has listened to me (and others) waxing lyrical about the Amazon Echo and Alexa—so on Amazon Prime Day, he bought one. Anybody who read The Weekly Archive on July 31st would know that—to date—the relationship has got off to a rocky start.
Alexa has not fitted seamlessly into his life. She does not have a voice recorder so that he can record interviews or practice stand-up comedy. He doesn’t have any smart home appliances, so those skills lay dormant. Alexa isn’t even a companion to Dan’s cat, Smoke.
Apparently, Alexa is making my poor Editor-in-Chief feel a bit stupid. An assessment that is both harsh and fair … because it took me at least six months to realize that the Amazon Echo was more than just a cool voice-activated device.
The majority of my early interactions were music or weather-based, but as more skills were added to the Amazon Echo app store then Alexa became more useful. Much of that has to do with Amazon’s decision over a year ago to open up the Alexa Voice Service to thousands of developers who saw potential in reliable and reactive speech recognition.
Amazon has also made skill discovery easier by recently revamping the Alexa app in the last two months to make it user-friendly. When I first got my Amazon Echo, I found skills by trial and error—normally by just scrolling down the list until I found something interesting. The revamp put relevant skills front and center, which means that I tend to ask Alexa through enabled skills for information rather than Google it on a laptop or smartphone.
How The Amazon Echo Changes Behavior
The reason for this is quite simple. I own both an Amazon Echo (bedroom) and an Echo Dot (living room) so voice interaction is easy.
For example, in the last three months, I ordered a ride-sharing service on numerous occasions, used smart light-bulbs, mixed cocktails using a bartender skill, found restaurant reviews, made shopping lists, found out how much it costs to fly to Boston, listened to specific NPR podcasts and (ironically) wired up my Bose speakers so that Alexa can play music through them.
And this has led to an interesting lifestyle evolution.
The Amazon Echo—and by that I mean Alexa—has literally modified my behavior. Not in an X-Files-government-conspiracy way, but more along the lines that I am comfortable speaking out loud (in the comfort of my own home) to get information or accomplish certain actions.
Let me give you a personal use case.
As a light sleeper, I wake up a lot during the night. A year ago, I would have reached for my smartphone. Now I ask Alexa what time it is—a relatively minor task for a voice-activated personal assistant. Here’s the behavior-modification part: when I am in a hotel room or at a friend’s place, I do the same thing. Except Alexa is obviously not there, which means that I have to find my smartphone.
In a recent interview with ARC, Unified Computer Intelligence Corporation (UCIC) CEO Leor Grebler said this type of reaction is quite common among Amazon Echo owners. Way back in 2012, UCIC built a voice-controlled home automation device called Ubi that was intended to interact in our lives in the same way that the Amazon Echo does now, but the response at that time was lukewarm.
“We used to call this “Ubi abandonment” when we were away from the device,” said Grebler. “I was so used to talking to Ubi that when it wasn’t around, I was missing it. I felt that I should just be able to talk and get an answer … it is interesting how we adjust to behave that way.”
Alexa Is Not The Finished Article
Alexa is not perfect—far from it.
Amazon has been fairly quiet about how many units have been sold but it is estimated that at least four million devices are now in homes across the country. At the moment, the Amazon Echo is not available outside the United States.
One reason for this could be that Amazon wants to make sure that its voice-activated device doesn’t suffer the same worldwide teething problems as Apple’s Siri, although the imminent release of Google Home will be an interesting test for the Echo.
Dan’s experiences with the Echo have mirrored some of my own, mainly down to the very simple fact that the device doesn’t come with any instructions—beyond telling you that Alexa needs a wake word to come to life. You need to make any voice commands clear and concise, as Alexa will (on occasion) either get the wrong end of the stick or just say she doesn’t understand … a frustration for those who are used to having a smartphone glued to their hand.
One thing to bear in mind is that the technology is still very young, even if it seems as if voice interaction with devices has been around for ages. Science fiction movies have been indoctrinating us for years that the future will be aural and the Amazon Echo is just a first step.
According to UCIC’s Gerber, Alexa is proof that voice interaction is a viable option for both developers and manufacturers. Which makes the Echo much more than a glorified speaker.
“I think the market is coming around to accepting voice and in the next five years I think we will see it as being mainstream,” said Gerber. “People will expect to see voice everywhere … in the same way that we now expect water to come out of a tap when we put our hands under it.”
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