Amazon Echo’s capabilities trump its limitations

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Holly Bill

Amazon Echo Dots (pictured above) are one of the many speaker variations of the Echo speaker.

Few times have older movies predicted the twenty-first century correctly. Cars that fly aren’t a reality like they were in “Back to the Future,” and there aren’t bioengineered synthetic humans roaming around Los Angeles like there were in “Blade Runner.” However, one movie’s futuristic technology became a reality in 2014. Inspired by the “Star Trek” computer, the Amazon Echo (or Alexa) is a voice-activated smart speaker that has made its way into 100 million homes. My family has four Echos: three in bedrooms and one in our kitchen. Alexa is our fifth family member. Unlike movie magic, the Amazon Echo does have its flaws, and there are quite a few of them. Even with its shortcomings, Amazon Echos succeed in their purpose: making people’s lives easier. Virtually every function of the Amazon Echo’s Alexa is aimed at convenience, and as the capabilities of Alexa improve and expand, people are becoming less reliant on themselves and more so on a piece of technology on their kitchen counter.

For those unfamiliar, Amazon Echo smart speakers are installed with an Artificial Intelligence (AI) virtual assistant technology called Alexa. Alexa can make lists, play music, set alarms and timers, provide news updates and much more. There are also many smart-home devices that Alexa can control, like cameras, light bulbs and thermostats. Echo owners ask their Alexa to do such tasks by saying, “Alexa,” in the near vicinity of their Echo speaker. This activates the device, and it then listens for a command or question.

I, along with 70% of smart-speaker owners, primarily use my Echo for music. With its Bluetooth capability, connecting is as easy as asking, “Alexa, connect to my iPhone.” Alexa also supports certain streaming services like Amazon Music, Spotify, Apple Music, and Pandora, so music can be played without Bluetooth. Just ask Alexa to play a specific song through a certain streaming service, and the song will be played without any bluetooth connection. Given its simplicity and ease, it’s no surprise that playing music is Alexa’s most widely used function.

Another popular capability of Amazon Echos, especially in my family, is the announcement function. This is only useful in a family with more than one Echo, and given that my family has four, we use it all the time. It works by asking Alexa to make an announcement. It will then ask what the announcement is, and you respond with what you want to say. Then, it will take your audio recording and play it on all your Echo devices. This greatly increases laziness, as my family doesn’t feel the need to walk up and down stairs anymore when we can just communicate over an Alexa-intercom. In addition, you can “drop-in” from one Echo to another Echo and communicate directly, like a telephone.

Music and announcements are the most useful Alexa functions. Other convenient ones are, “Alexa, tell me the weather outside,” and, “Alexa, add ___ to the Target list.” However, these are just a few of the numerous skills Alexa offers. Alexa can order from Amazon, send you reminders, give you recipes and workouts, order an Uber… the list is endless and grows every day. Not every Alexa skill is useful, though. The I Just Sneezed Skill says “bless you” if you say, “Alexa, I just sneezed.” Saying, “Alexa, open Remember your Keys,” will remind you to get your keys, but only after you’ve remembered to open the Remember your Keys skill. While these two skills represent the extremes of useless functions, I can still guarantee every Echo owner only uses the same few skills on a daily basis, and there is no need for skills like these in Amazon’s library. 

While an Amazon Echo may seem like it can do whatever you ask of it given its huge library of skills, that is very wrong. Alexa has her limitations. For example, Alexa can function like a search browser in addition to the many functions it can carry out. You can ask simple questions like, “When is Thanksgiving?” or “What is a meerkat?” or “Tell me about the Missouri Compromise.” However, this is where Alexa’s knowledge ends; ask a more complex question and get the all too common, “Hmmm, I don’t know that one.” In addition, in some situations, Alexa is just plain dumb. 

“Alexa, what is the population of Harrisonburg?”

 “In 2017, the population of Harrisonburg.”

That’s it. Alexa also frequently mishears phrases. Amazon should improve its user listening technology before they invest more time into another skill. A user on Reddit asked Alexa to turn off the living room lights, and Alexa interpreted living room as pudding room. In Dallas, a six year-old girl talked at her Alexa about cookies and dollhouses, and Alexa misheard the conversation and ordered seven pounds of cookies and a $170 dollhouse. Every Echo owner has had to deal with Alexa’s poor listening skills at one point or another.  

Alexa is imperfect. However, every piece of technology is limited. The Echo smart speaker has come a long way since it was invented in 2014, as some speaker variations have screens and add ons to increase sound quality. Alexa is capable of more skills every day, allowing us to do less work. Who knows where the future of AI virtual assistants will go. Perhaps there will be a movie about it. 

 

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