When I heard about Amazon's new $199 Echo device for the home, my initial worry was was how noisy my house can be, especially when my dog is barking.
Echo has microphones and speakers and hopes to revolutionize the way digital, voice-controlled assistants help us in many ways. You activate the small black cylindrical tower device by saying "Alexa." Then, you can tell Echo to record a shopping list for an errand or you can say, "Play Pachelbel's Canon," or "Tell me the proper spelling for 'supercilious.'
I haven't reviewed the device, so I'm not sure how well it can do any of those tasks. It sounds promising if it works as advertised. Some people have concerns that the device will start to learn things like when we are home, or not, to invade our privacy. That's the same concern with many other gadgets. My more immediate concern is just how well Echo handles its tasks.
How well does the search engine behind Echo work at finding the right information we want? We'll see. If it just performs as a way to help Amazon analyze our buying habits, primarily to set us up for easy online buying of goods over Amazon, then Echo will probably succumb to the fate of of the Amazon Fire smartphone that a lot of people have dismissed as a collection of technology gimmicks.
In my informal evaluations of Siri, Google Now and Cortana, I've found Cortana to be the best digital assistant thus far partly because it relies on a pretty powerful Bing search engine and seems to work with better Artificial Intelligence capabilities than the others. For example, a Cortana function that worked well on a Lumina smartphone I reviewed let me set a reminder to buy milk, and then I was asked when I might need it and was offered a list of the closest food stores to buy it. When the proper day came and I was driving by the food store on the way to an appointment, I was dinged with a reminder to buy the milk. Pretty simple, but pretty helpful.
Echo won't do as much because it's not mobile and won't give GPS positioning. It has a power cord and is designed to sit still and recognize different voices in a room. Presumably it filters out sounds, but I'd like to try it out when my dog Scout is barking or making her various whimpers, squeaks and yawns. She will probably just bark louder should Echo respond.
I wonder if Scout will ever learn to recognize the code word "Alexa" used to activate Echo. Scout is certainly smart enough to jump to attention--and bark--any time I'm talking to someone (or myself) and she'll probably wonder why I'm carrying on a conversation with Echo, aka Alexa. My dog is very smart and I'd match her wits with any consumer grade AI. This could lead to interesting things, especially if the girl scout down the street named Alexa drops by to sell cookies.
Echo came up in a discussion I had this week with business students over the way smartphones and other devices are changing the way humans interact with such machines. We've seen inputs change from physical keyboards to touchscreen keyboards and to facial gestures in some cases.
Voice commands are a natural and easy way to command a device, but the downside is that it's hard to speak commands during a business meeting or in a noisy crowd or in many other settings. In my house, it is not only the dog barking, but all the people speaking over each other that will challenge Echo. When all of us get together and we have a dinner party or breakfast together, it can sound like a Fox TV news program with a lot of forceful people interrupting each other. Echo sounds like it will work best in one of those quiet homes where everybody is polite and listens to one other, with pauses in between. Sort of like a family in a 1950s TV sitcom.
Fundamentally, Echo and many other gadgets are a challenge to how much we choose to adopt technology in our lives. Also, how much we can tolerate having machines take on human characteristics such as voice. There are always going to be early adopters who want to try new things. (And where would we be without innovation?) But what matters is staying power.
One of the business students asked nobody in particular if products like Echo and the iPhone 6 with Apple Pay for quick and easy mobile payments are going to make society too dependent on devices that are constantly in our midst. It had been a long time since I'd heard anybody voice that student's concern. I'm admittedly entrenched in the hoopla around Every New Thing. It's my job to jump on board new tech. Still, I sometimes wonder how much the rest of world really cares.
How long will it be before somebody turns to Echo and politely says, "Alexa, can you please shut up!"