Last week my partner and I welcomed a new member of our household. Alexa is only short, but she’s very chatty already. People say that it’s life changing… and they might just be right.
I am, of course, talking about Amazon’s virtual assistant Alexa, which lives inside the Amazon Echo, which was released in the UK last week. And on the strength of the seven days of use, I can confirm that getting an Echo is a much better choice than getting a child. I mean, you can actually have something resembling an informed conversation with Alexa. And she doesn’t shit everywhere.
If you’re not familiar with Amazon Echo, it is basically Siri but for the home. The tubular speaker sits in the corner of your living room or your kitchen, and will respond to any commands you bark at it.
You can ask a wide variety of questions from the factual (“What is the capital of…?”), to the mathematical (“How many days since…?”), and you can hook it up a variety of different services, such as a phone's calendar, so it will be able to tell you about your schedule.
It will also do things like set alarms and timers for you, and it will even play music (thanks to either Amazon Prime Music or Spotify – your choice), more or less seamlessly.
It executes it all hugely impressively. It’s entirely voice controlled, with a bare minimum of settings that need configuring by tapping in the app. And it is hard not to soon find it incredibly useful.
I was a bit worried when I first got hold of it that it would struggle with my Leicester accent; at an Amazon demo event in a fancy meeting space a few weeks ago, it couldn’t work out what I was saying. But once installed in a domestic setting, it worked almost scarily seamlessly. Despite listening to music on a separate Sonos system rather loudly while writing this, I can ask it questions and it will successfully figure out what I want. I’ve got the Echo set up in my living room, yet bellowing a question from my bedroom still works. At that Amazon launch event, Amazon spoke at length about how there’s seven microphones embedded in the device, and it is smart enough to filter the incoming audio to better pick up questions being asked.
Perhaps the most useful feature though is when it is used in conjunction with other devices. Amazon has designed the Echo to play a central role in the Internet of Things, and it will automatically detect any IOT devices connected to the same network. In my case, it picked up my Belkin Wemo Lights, and my Tado thermostat.
This means that using Alexa, rather than have to faff around with an app to control them, I can simply say “Alexa, turn on the lights” or “Alexa, turn the temperature up by 2 degrees”, which makes for an infinitely more intuitive interface for these devices. What’s quite weird too is realising that you can talk to Alexa without having to look at your Echo – because we’re using voices, it is instinctive to turn your head to look at what you’re talking to – but as Alexa is a robot, there’s no need to do so, and this takes a while to get used to.
As followers of the tech industry know, any major company worth its salt is working on artificial intelligence and machine technology of the sort that drives Alexa. Apple has Siri, Microsoft’s got Cortana, Facebook has its Messenger bots and Google has its own nameless assistant too.
Arguably this puts Amazon at a disadvantage out of these big four, given the richness of the data that each company can conceivably collect on us: all Amazon really has is our shopping preferences. Which is perhaps why the company has got Echo out early, ahead of Google Home and rumoured similar products from others. But it is perhaps also why the company is making a big deal about Echo being able to learn other “skills”.
Skills are essentially apps, and they can be installed on to Alexa using the companion app, and extend support to other services. For example, you can add the Guardian or the Telegraph to tell you the latest news – so whether you’re a Europhile or a Brexiteer, Alexa will have you sorted, then.
You can also add Uber and Just Eat so you can order yourself a cab or a takeaway just by speaking. In the case of the latter, giving the potentially unwieldy nature of ordering food, you’re limited to only re-ordering what you’ve eaten before – but even so, it’s slightly mind blowing that this can be done only with your voice.
What’s quite unusual, though, is that it isn’t actually possible to buy stuff from Amazon yet; Alexa is more than aware of this, and tells me that the feature is being added soon.
And perhaps most usefully, there’s a handful of transport apps. National Rail has just launched, and can be configured to tell you the status of your commute, and a third party Tube status app means that you can get Tube updates. With connectivity to the app for travel firm Kayak, you can even track flights and search for holidays.
Limitations and Opportunities
The skills are interesting because they both simultaneously show how useful Alexa could be, but also one of the current limitations. Though you talk to Alexa, it still isn’t completely natural, and you have to carefully construct how you phrase certain commands. For example, you can’t say “Alexa, what’s the Victoria Line like?”; instead, you have to ask “Alexa, ask Tube Status about the Victoria Line”. This is because of the logic of how the platform treats skills. You have to first tell Alexa the name of the app (“Tube Status”), before issuing the app-specific command. With some of the baked-in apps, like music playback it is a little more flexible. “Alexa, play Green Day”, for example, will automatically figure out that Green Day is a band and you want to play them on Spotify.
What’s going to be really interesting over the next few years is seeing how Amazon’s language processing improves. Not only are we feeding it more data to learn from, but as the data is cloud processed conceivably Amazon could make inputs even more naturalistic (and even further improve Alexa’s voice), meaning the devices that are already in our houses will progressively get better.
The other limitation at the moment is in terms of third-party support. As bitter GameCube, Windows Phone and HD-DVD owners will tell you, a platform will live and die by the number of users and developers supporting it. And though there are some major apps and brands currently offering Alexa support, it still has a little way to go. I’m hoping that someone will hurry up and write an app for checking London buses too.
Meeting this challenge is going to be more difficult for Amazon than the likes of Google and Apple, because they don’t have already ubiquitous platforms from which to drive development and receive data to better train it. Google Home, for instance, is surely better positioned to offer more because of its corporate parent’s ability to mine your emails and almost everything else you do online.
I think my partner put it best when she said “it’s scary how immediately useful Alexa becomes”. And this is the dilemma that millions of people are going to face as the technology becomes more ubiquitous.
Previously, I’ve written at length about how services built on big data and machine learning are getting really creepy and I’ve even argued that products like Google Home and Echo could conceivably bring back the end of liberal democracy (I’m ever the optimist). So wouldn’t it be massively hypocritical of me to then go and praise something like Echo?
Well, perhaps. But the problem is that with these pervasive new technologies, which could conceivably be used for surveillance or control purposes, it is impossible to opt out. It is almost impossible to function in the modern world without a smartphone – but, knowing this, we still don’t feel too bad about that fact because smartphones are really useful. In the same way, unlike the telescreens invented by George Orwell, Echo doesn’t listen to us for the benefit of the government; it provides useful tools that make our lives easier. It seems that as with smartphones before it, we’re eventually just going to accept and forget about privacy worries.
To assuage privacy worries, Amazon has gone as far as it can while still maintaining a functioning product. For a start, the microphone only listens when you say the trigger word: Alexa. It figures out whether you’re calling for it locally, before sending your request off to Amazon’s servers for processing. Even better, Echo is built in such a way that when you hit the mute button on top of the device it literally stops electricity passing through the microphones, making it physically impossible for the device to listen to you.
Though if my experience over the last week is instructive, while you might like having the mute button there in principle, the idea that Alexa is always there and ready to listen becomes so normalised after just a few hours that you forget about ever using it.
Ultimately, I was hugely impressed by Alexa. Much more than I was expecting. Being a tech writer I’m quite cynical. Though Siri has been around for years, it still feels like only a “nice to have” rather than something essential. With Echo though, it feels like the first proper example of voice-tech changing and improving a user experience.
If you can get over the privacy worries that are implicit in pretty much everything major new tech product these days, Echo feels as though it could be pretty life changing. Perhaps not for me, massively – though it enables me to solve some the first-world problems caused by laziness. But it’ll be even more exciting to see how Echo changes the lives of the elderly and people who lack mobility as it does tonnes of useful things, entirely by voice.
So is Echo worth £150? Yeah, I think so. Despite my reservations, it appears that Alexa has earned its place in our family. As our homes get stuffed with connected devices, we’ll start to wonder how we ever coped without it.