My Son’s First Word Was Alexa

No. Not really. But it was close. We’ve gone down Amazon’s IoT connected home rabbit hole and are loving it.

Alexa joined our family about a year ago and since then she has transitioned from a decent enough speaker with an alarm feature to a single point of contact for much of our digital lives.

  • Want to latest news? Ask Alexa
  • Need an Uber? Ask Alexa
  • Want a Pizza? Ask Alexa
  • Turn off the lights… you get the idea.

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In case you have not had the pleasure of an introduction, Alexa (who is actually named after the ancient library of Alexandria) is Amazon’s voice control system that comes with the Echo, Dot and Tap devices. Alexa lets you ask questions or give commands and she turns them into action. Beyond being your digital assistant, Alexa’s voice control and cloud connectivity allows her to become the center of your connected world. Thermostats, light bulbs, and televisions all become Alexa connected through “skills”, more on that later.

So why did Amazon build Alexa? Here are a couple of thoughts:

  • Their Very Own Platform: Create a single command center for your smart home and digital life: Every technology company from Apple to Google to Facebook is focused on building a platform that keeps customers (and customer information) within their ecosystem. Amazon has done a great job of this with their ecommerce and ebook platforms, but these are built for purpose platforms and do not have the stickiness of the app enabled device or social media platforms others have built. Amazon is trying to make the smart home their ecosystem and is doing so with a first mover advantage strategy.
  • Online shopping: No Hands Required: While we are hopelessly tether to our smart phones, they are not always in reach when we are at home. Amazon is giving us very similar functionality over an improved interface through the use of a well deigned voice recognition solution and smartphone analogs like skills that make the shift to Alexa easier for us to Grasp. Voice enabled shopping combined with automatic replenishment incorporate Amazon into your life.

 

  • Single Integration Point: Did you know that Amazon has a streaming music service? Neither did I, but now I use it constantly with Alexa. Turns out that Amazon has many services like photo storage and magazine subscriptions that are relatively unknown. Better yet. They are all free for Prime Members. Alexa is going to serve as a single integration point for all of these services and get customers deeper into Amazon then they ever were before.

Bottom line is that Amazon is pursuing an Amazon everywhere strategy that has the goal of bringing their services toe every part of our lives. Alexa is a early part of that strategy.

The Tech

Amazon devices supporting Alexa leverage several far-field microphones to accept voice commands, even over background noise such as music or conversation. We recently put this to a test during our “friendsgiving” and even with a floor full of chatty guests; Alexa was still able to crank out the Trump jokes on command. Alexa responds to voice commands from almost anywhere within earshot. On the Echo and Dot there’s no activation button to press. Alexa comes alive as soon as she hears a trigger word, in my case “Alexa”. amazonalexa

Simply say the trigger word (either “Alexa,” “Echo,” or “Amazon” are the current options) followed by what you want to happen, and she gets it done—as long as you’ve set up everything properly and are using the correct command (it’s still very much a work in progress and you should set your expectations accordingly).

Here is the scary thing: Once you get used to the commands and how to speak to Alexa, using Alexa feels very natural and responsive then some of the other personal digital assistants that have been incorporate into our phones such as Siri or Cortana. This, of course, was by design and it makes it very easy for you to incorporate Alexa into the activities you are already doing. For example, Alexa has become our favorite sous chef: reading recipes, converting measurements and setting timers are all hands free.

Amazon built a natural language processing system that is one of the easiest to interact with we’ve seen. If you ask a question or deliver a command, you usually don’t have to ask twice. Part of Alexa’s success is dependent on the seven very sensitive microphones built into both the Echo and Dot (the Tap, being a portable version, works a little differently). Alexa is always listening, and is quick to respond.

Let’s Talk Skills

Skills are how Alexa integrates with the rest of the world and they represent the true possibility for the platform. Think of skill as a synonym for app. Amazon has opened up the Alexa platform to third part developers so that they can incorporate their features, functionality, and content into Alexa. Early adopters included digital early adopters Uber and Dominos, but more skills are showing up weekly from the likes of everyone from CNN to Capital One. For now, most skills are voice enabled version of existing application, but expect the evolution of skills to be similar to what we have seen for smartphone apps. Skills will become a focal point for digital disruption as individuals and companies find more applications for the voice recognition and natural language processing technology behind Alexa.

Alexa also supports the expanding IFTTT or If This Then That standard to interface with other devices. Expanding Alexa’s ecosystem.

Alexa and the Uncanny Valley

When we start to incorporate technologies such as robotics, machine learning, and voice recognition into our daily lives we start to hit upon what researchers and computer scientists refer to as the uncanny valley. The Uncanny Valley is a hypothesis that human replicas which appear almost, but not exactly, like real human being to elicit feelings of eeriness and revulsion. What this boils down to is that we feel uncomfortable with machines that are close to human, but seem slightly-off. Think about the feeling you got when you first saw the Tom Hanks character in the 2004 release of The Polar Express. That is the Uncanny Valley.   450px-mori_uncanny_valley-svg

As we work devices like Alexa into our daily lives their makers need to be aware of the impact of the Uncanny Valley. If these devices become too familiar or too close to conversational, users might start to reject them as creepy. Today Amazon has solved for this problem by incorporating features like the trigger word. This allows us to believe that Alexa is only listening when we want her to hear what we have to say and executing the exact commands that we specify. However, it is not far-fetched to think that one day Alexa might start making recommendations (perhaps shopping recommendations) or even executing commands based on what it believes we want. For example, saying something like “I am heading to bed” might trigger Alexa to turn off the lights and lower the thermostat”. My advice to those pursuing technologies like the voice recognition we see with Alexa is that they need to mind the Uncanny Valley.

Conclusion

“Alexa” may not have been my son’s first word, but he does try to interact with her and requests that we do the same. Voice recognition and natural language processing technology has been around for many years, but Amazon has refined it to the point where it can be successfully deployed into our homes. We may find Alexa novel, but I am confident that my son will grow-up in a world where this technology is common place. Keyboards, track pads, and touch screens will not go away, but communicating with our digital world is as easy as having a conversation.

11 comments

  1. polmankevin · ·

    I went to one of BC’s local tech trek trips to the Amazon office in Boston about a year ago and got a sneak peak of the Echo before it was released. Ever since I saw it, I’ve been a huge fan. At first it seems to be limited in its capabilities but, as you said, it very quickly becomes a big part of your life. It is one of those devices where you don’t realize how much you would use it until you own it. I really enjoyed you analysis here, it was well laid out and brought up many points I hadn’t seen before. The topic of the uncanny valley is extremely interesting and very relatable, it will definitely continue to be a controversial topic. I wonder if improved artificial intelligence will help bridge the gap of the valley, or widen it.

  2. Great post! At first, I thought what was the point of having Alexa, but I now understand the potential that this has for our lives. Amazon is really trying to be the leaders in integrating into our homes and provide everything for our lives. As homes get smarter, I really thing Amazon’s Alexa will blow up even more and the true potential of it will really blossom.

  3. skuchma215 · ·

    Thanks for the review! I’ve been considering buying on of these for awhile now, the only thing that is holding me back in the 130 price point. But more I hear about the skills and functions of the device, and the more I read positive reviews like this one, the more I want to buy one. How often do you use Alexa in your daily routine? Do you wake up and have Alexa tell you the weather and your calendar? Or do you mainly use it for recipes and ordering food? I imagine that depends on whether or not you keep it in the bedroom or kitchen

  4. wfbagleyiii · ·

    Great post! I completely agree that this could be the beginning of a new age of technological interaction with virtual personal assistants. We got an echo about a year ago and use it primarily for entertainment, but it’s also connected to our lights – a more practical use of Alexa for sure. I am curious to see if this technology will become helpful within office settings and other places.

  5. Really nice post! We’re big echo fans in my family, except we refer to her as “she who must not be named” so we don’t wake her up.

  6. olearycal · ·

    Really interesting post! I can definitely understand the appeal of Alexa (even if at this point I probably wouldn’t want to pay 130 dollars). I would totally use Alexa during cooking to ask about measurements and conversions. Is there a way to upload recipes into Alexa? I wonder who will be the next to create a stereo similar to Alexa.

  7. Great post! I completely agree that Alexa was a very strategic move on Amazon’s part to keep their customers fully integrated into the Amazon brand. One thing that does concern me with Alexa is that it’s essentially always on. As described by the uncanny valley, there is a fine line that Alexa has the potential to cross. Although Alexa is only supposed to turn on from “trigger” words, I sometimes worry that it’s listening to private conversations or could even be hacked to transfer personal information. Either way, I think Alexa has so much more potential but it will depend on how comfortable people can feel with the device.

  8. ikechukwu_28 · ·

    Nice post. Initially when I started seeing commercials for Alexa, I kind of dismissed it as a sort of gimmick. However, my roommate recently purchased, and we now use it pretty much everyday. Hopefully in the future, this sort of technology is improved upon and we can find even more ways to integrate it in our everyday lives.

  9. michaelahoff · ·

    “A command center for your life” sounds intense. Alexa is very intense though, and the next generation of kids won’t even be tech-savvy. They’re lives will be filled with Alexas, so that means they’re just savvy.

  10. magicjohnshin1 · ·

    This was a fascinating read. I am now realizing that children these days will be growing up with AI. This seemed so futuristic a couple years ago, but is now quickly becoming a reality. I thought your point on “making recommendations” was extremely interesting, because this is already being done on multiple websites such as Airbnb or Yelp. It is only a matter of time before IoT devices are programmed into recognizing recommendations from the web, and perhaps takes it a step further to combine personal data to come up with the best recommendation. It would be very interesting to see how human, and humane, these creations can get. Cheers!

  11. adamsmea89 · ·

    This was a great post! I have been interested to learn more about the Echo and this post was very helpful. I think it sounds great, but I do understand why people may be hesitant to invite it into their homes. There is a weird feeling associated with have something like the Echo in your home and not really knowing when it is recording and when it is not recording. I also wonder if these recordings are saved by Amazon to improve the product, or if a crime was committed if the police would use the data the Echo has stored.

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