Alexa and Me: Three Days with the Amazon Echo

We have a new family member in our household, thanks to an anonymous benefactor: last week we got an Amazon Echo, Amazon’s always-on, digital assistant. How would I describe it? Think of having iPhone’s Siri always listening to you. No need to touch any buttons to wake her up. Just say her name, and she’s there. Add a nice speaker to that set up, and you’ve got the Echo. Now that I’ve had it few days, I’m here to give a few thoughts on the device.

First, it’s definitely a hit with the kids. TRC and DC love talking to the thing, and MC wishes Alexa could understand her. (It doesn’t help that every now and then, MC speaks clearly enough for Alexa to work, which encourages MC to keep trying,) We’ve heard the phrase “Alexa, tell me a joke” many many many many times over the last bit. (MC will happily keep trying ten times in a row.) So it definitely has some appeal as a novelty device.

But how about as something useful?

I think it’s going to be something that takes some getting used to in order to fully utilize it. It’s a device with a lot more potential than I first thought, but it’s potential that needs some things to fall into place to be fully realized. So far, I’ve used it to set alarms, check the weather, play music, tell me the news, and things on that level. Stuff I would use Siri for normally. And is it easier than Siri? Sure. There’s no need to go hunting for my phone. It’s always there, ready to answer your questions. But you need more than that if you’re going to justify a $180 purchase. So what else can the Echo do?

Ultimately, a whole lot. But that depends on your home setup. There’s an app store for the device, and you can install a bunch of add ons through that. Order an Uber or a Domino’s pizza. Turn on your television or the lights in your bedroom. Adjust your thermostat. If you have a bunch of smart devices in your home, then Alexa can talk to all of them, turning her into basically a ship’s computer for your whole house. And the thought of that is really cool. Of course, I only can set her up to control my entertainment center at the moment. I don’t have anything else that can connect to her.

Perhaps the most useful thing I’m working on with her at the moment is getting it set up so that Denisa can play Slovak radio programs for the kids. Doing so right now involves enough clicking and technology that it’s just impractical for Denisa to get it set up every time. It looks like the Echo interfaces well with online radio stations, which would make things much easier. (And it also does audio books through Audible. I wonder if I could get some Slovak kids books?)

But these are early days, and I can see the direction technology is headed, and I think Alexa is right there with it. She keeps getting upgraded. She’ll continue to have new capabilities added to her, and since she really just needs to hook into an internet connection to stay up to date, I don’t see a limit to how she can improve. It’s a speaker, an internet connection, and a microphone. Everything else is on the cloud, more or less. So I’ll be very excited to see where it heads next.

For now, the trick is going to be reminding myself she’s there, and making sure to take advantage of her. But there could well come a time when she just becomes an inherent part of the house.

I love living in the future.

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