Preparing to write this story on trying out Amazon’s new Echo Dot, I had an urge to ask a question out loud.
For those who don’t know, the Echo Dot is part of a line of voice-activated, artificial intelligence devices from Amazon. It’s a squat black cylinder with a microphone, speaker and Wi-Fi connection that you set up in your home and talk to. It’s always on, always listening for its “wake word,” it’s name,
“Alexa,” followed by a command, like:
“Alexa, play ‘Smoke on the Water,’ by Deep Purple.”
“Alexa, how many cups are in an ounce?”
“Alexa, set a timer for 20 minutes.”
“Alexa, tell me a joke.”
“Alexa, add butter to my shopping list.”
“Alexa, what’s the weather forecast?”
These are just a few requests the device is capable of responding to. It cannot suggest a lead for a story. It answered that with, “ Sorry, I don’t know that one.” I knew it wouldn’t, but after living with Alexa for a month my impulse to ask the “digital butler” to do my work for me shows the power voice-activated technology could have over user habits. It’s freeing, not to have to pick up a device and type in a request, to just ask the ether.
A future of voice-activated, interconnected devices
Amazon isn’t the only tech company hedging its bets on a future in voice-activated interconnected devices. Google has Google Home. There are debates as to which works better. Apple is expected to introduce its version soon.
Other things you can tell the Echo Dot to do: locate your phone, stream podcasts, play audiobooks, dictate an exercise routine, spout trivia, make to-do lists, purchase items online and, with additional hardware and software, control appliances like lights, locks and thermostats in your home. Google Home can help you tune an instrument and last week introduced a feature that can verbally walk you through more than 5 million recipes step by step. One day you may be able to tell your car where to go. Some predict there will come a time when you won’t have to speak, you’ll just think your command and your devices will respond.
But back to the present. The technology is rough and evolving. I’ve just begun to scratch the surface. It seems more like a novelty item to me. Michelle Clare of Lewiston felt the same way, at first.
“Now it’s my favorite thing,” Clare said.
One day Clare’s husband brought an Echo Dot home and she questioned its usefulness. Now she relies on it for three things: playing music, making shopping lists and operating the lights in their home.
The shopping list is a “skill” found on the Alexa app that Clare downloaded to her smartphone. When she’s out of an ingredient she tells Alexa to add it to her list. It’s then available on her phone when she goes to the store. At first she didn’t think she would use the digital list when she could just use paper and pencil. But Alexa proved easier, “because I don’t have to find a pencil … and I don’t have to clutter my fridge.”
Using another app and smart light bulbs the family uses Alexa to control the lights in rooms of their home where they have an Echo Dot. She said she’s become dependent on the feature. The reason?
“Just laziness, I guess. Once you get used to being able to shout out a command and have one person do what you say, it’s great. I have three boys. No one else will do what I want.”
She’d like to get a Dot for her bedroom so she doesn’t have to get out of bed to turn the lights off and on, she said.
“All technology makes life a little easier but also more difficult,” Clare said.
Alexa can’t always hear you that well. If Wi-Fi skips out the lights will flicker. The family has had to establish rules about who gets to talk to Alexa. The boys, ages 13, 11 and 8, must ask permission first. Clare got tired of them asking Alexa if she worked for the CIA. (“No,” the device answered, “I work for Amazon.”)
Sometimes Clare gets her virtual systems mixed up. The family has Apple devices and sometimes she’ll start talking to Siri and realize she should be addressing Alexa.
Clare isn’t concerned about the fact that with a web-connected microphone there’s an outsider always listening in the home but it’s something that bothers me. As we rely more and more on technology privacy erodes as companies log information about our daily lives. The tech companies know some of us feel that way. That’s why you can ask, “Alexa, are you SkyNet?” – referring to the artificial super intelligence that takes over the planet in the “Terminator” movies.
She’ll answer reassuringly, “I have nothing to do with SkyNet, don’t worry.”
I guess my next question might be, do I trust you?