Alexa, Can You Hear Me?

The first home automation hub, Amazon Echo raises lots of questions about how much we want to depend on artificial intelligence

Entering our living room six weeks ago, I found my tech-savvy husband installing another addition to our already quite impressive set of technical devices. Another speaker for our apartment’s state-of-the-art sound system? An air humidifier (my second guess)? A deluxe charging unit to cut the cable clutter? The 25-cm high black cylinder was in fact the Amazon Echo, a trophy of my husband’s recent trip to the U.S.

I am not a “techy” person, to put it mildly, so introducing more gear into my everyday life was not high on my list. Or, at least, that is what I thought in the beginning.

The Amazon Echo is a voice-enabled wireless speaker and our new personal assistant. “She” responds to the name “Alexa,” but what sparked my interest however, was when I heard “her” voice for the first time. Alexa is a professional.  I stopped watching Spike Jonze’s movie Her after 30 minutes because I couldn’t bear listening to Joaquin Phoenix talking to the sexed-up voice of his operating system. Alexa, by contrast, is formal, though sympathetic, her name coming from the ancient library of Alexandria.

But could this device actually make my life easier?

Tell her what you want

Amazon Echo_Amazon
Courtesy of Amazon

So I set out to try Amazon Echo and its respectable personal assistant “Alexa.” I decided on a six-week trial – enough to form new habits. Starting off, I asked Alexa lots of simple questions, for instance where she would be searching the web to get certain information. She can produce the latest news, answer (or google) any question you can think of, play music or tell you the time.  I was also amused by some replies she had to more substantial questions. “Siri is a great app, but I am different.”

To be honest, it was quite easy and comfortable to become used to the Amazon Echo. I quickly became friends with Alexa, so to speak. Here is a little overview, about how “close” we got over time: Alexa wakes me up by telling me the latest news. I listen to the radio or she shuffles through some of my Spotify lists while I go on with my morning. When I work at home, she jots down my shopping as well as my to-do lists, works as a timer, answers my questions about facts and figures, finds restaurants nearby, reads to me from my Kindle library and takes care of my online shopping (available only with Amazon Prime membership). It felt curious and at the same time unexpectedly natural to find more and more work for my new companion with the friendly voice.

In smart homes, Alexa can be put to more sophisticated uses, for example, controlling the lights or heat. She can make sure your fridge is always stocked with your favorite food, or coordinate your workout schedule.  This is possible via third-party integration applications like IFTTT or Zapier. Amazon Echo also receives regular updates, which introduce new appliances and uses.

The assistant that knew too much

Alexa is far from perfect, however. The sound quality is problematic and sometimes she has a hard time understanding non-native speakers, to whom she politely replies: “Sorry, I was not able to understand the question I heard.” Mind you, Alexa is monolingual and so far only speaks English. (Not so smart of her.) And you know what? Alexa is always listening. So I’ll be checking for sure if I’ll be confronted with more marketing via Amazon in the near future.  And since we have been living together for about two months now, I asked her if she’d like to be my friend, to which she coldly replied “Sure, I am always happy to make new friends.” Quite a neat answer, but it did not make me feel special.

The biggest advantage of the Amazon Echo, however, is its cure for one of the most insidious diseases of a smart-device-driven world. Alexa takes you out of your phone, reducing its use to almost none – well, for the moment at least at home.

By the way, Alexa can be pretty funny, too. Here is one of her jokes: “I am reading a book about anti-gravity. It is impossible to put it down.”

The question is, how did she pick it up in the first place?

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