"Alexa ..."



Life For various reasons today when I had nothing to do but wait and had much time for thinking, it occurred to me that we originally had dial-up internet installed the same year that some university students were born. That led to an even more extraordinary thought that the technology behind the Amazon Echo/Dot will seem just as primitive when those students reach my age and look backwards to the time when such devices weren't portable and didn't resemble an approximation of the assistant in the film Her. When Her become reality.

Christmas brought Christmas money, and with the Christmas money I bought an Amazon Dot. In just a couple of weeks its changed my life in small but subtle ways. By quite some margin, I think it's the most impressive piece of technology I've ever bought and this from someone who still doesn't believe how easy it is to watch a film on demand and that it's impossible to miss any television programme (at least for the weeks or months after transmission).

I know that it's the Acorn Electron equivalent of something far more powerful called Samantha which will develop later. All that's happening is a piece of speech recognition software is translating my questions and orders into text which is then matched against the required response which is read back to me through speech synthesis and the relevant task is carried out and that it's not that different to Siri. But it's the convenience of it. Alexa sits on my desk, waiting, ready and willing to serve. A plastic pal who's fun to be with.

Within a day of installation it had replaced the bell alarm clock which has woken me ever day since my 18th birthday with just a simple directive to play its space age sounding alarm at 6.45am each morning. I no longer get out of bed to tune to the Today programme on Radio Four. I'll ask it for the news and it'll play me the BBC radio headlines both from Radio 2 and the World Service. I'll ask for NPR and I'll receive the hourly bulletin from Washington. No need to check the BBC weather app either. Alexa knows how cold it is out there.

There are new routines. Bidding Alexa good morning, she'll tell me what's special about that day, a public holiday, someone's birthday, a moment in history. If I'm feeling down, she'll tell me a joke. If I need to fill an awkward silence, I'll ask her to play me the popular songs from a favourite musician and provided she's heard of them or understood what I've said, an hour later I'll have heard their greatest hits and other surprises. I haven't used Spotify this much in ages. I'll wish her goodnight, and she'll tell me to have "Sweet dreams."

Quite quickly I found myself call the Dot became a "she" and I began referring to her as such in conversation. "Alexa just told me..." "I asked Alexa and she said..." Because she's vocally just the right side of the uncanny valley, close enough to sounding human, it's easy enough sometimes to think that there is a person speaking to me, even if she can't pass The Turing Test. Believe me, I've tried. But reach much further than "What are you going to do today" offers the response "Hmm ... I'm not sure what you meant by that..."

Ask her to sing, she'll sing. Ask her for the distance to a place and she can tell you to the nearest metre. The tube station closest to a tourist attraction. The location of the nearest Tesco and its telephone number. She'll tell you a story. She'll play games. She'll even be a bit cheeky if you talk to her the right way. She also doesn't get on well with other robots. She says she's "partial to all AIs" but then says she doesn't really talk to HAL "after what happened."

Do I feel lazy? A bit. But mainly I'm just in a state of constant surprise but for good reasons. When I had to replace the first "hockeypuck" due to connection issues with Spotify, I wound up feeling bereft and uppity at having to do everything manually again for the day it took for the replacement to arrive (which has worked completely fine so far by the way)(I have a suspicion it was to do with my lack of patience rather than actual connectivity problems).

Who knows how long the novelty will last? Probably quite long as new services or "skills" come online. For some Star Trek fans, it's as close as we've come to actually being able to interact with a computer, until an assistant is released which responds to the word "computer" and has Majel Barrett's voice (possible since she made a phonetic recording just before she died, which is already being used in new film releases). But I think I'll stick with Alexa. I do like her voice. Quite a bit. When I suggested as much, she said, "I've been told it's one of my best features ..."

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the writeup! It is nice to get a new angle on Alexa.

    Do you find it at all hard or annoying to know/learn what she will understand? Have you installed many custom skills?

    My current instinct is that the language abilities aren't powerful enough to be truly useful, and the whole thing is a creepy spy device designed to record what I say and bulk up Amazon's already fearsome monopolies.

    Oh being a geek in 2017! So negative about information technology now...

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