Alexa revisited: Reflections on living with Amazon's assistant

Few months living with Amazon's chat bot

An image of an Amazon Echo 2
Credit: Jon Phillips

Last summer I wrote about my initial experience using Amazon Alexa. Alexa continues to be a hit, and was a major success story at CES 2017. We've been using it for a few months now and I'd like to revisit the conversation and discuss how we use Alexa.

Echo lives in our kitchen

After trying a few locations around the house, we've settled on the kitchen. Amazon Echo seems to be most useful there. The kitchen is where the family is together a good chunk of the day. We use it to get the news, play music and check the weather. I like to cook with my kids, and we use it to set timers and look up unit conversions. There are a few recipe skills out there, but I found them difficult to use.

Insteon smart home devices and Alexa

About eight years ago, I replaced at least half the wall switches in my home with Insteon switches. Though the technology predates all the modern smart home devices, they have kept up -- and Alexa happens to be compatible with them.

We can ask Alexa to "turn kitchen lights on" or "turn patio lights on" and Alexa obliges. Whether this is a useful feature or a cute party trick, I'll leave it up to you to judge. I think of it as one of those modern conveniences that soon we'll all take for granted.

Tap is with us outside

Since purchasing Echo, we purchased Tap. A real industrial design genius at Amazon made it look exactly like a beer can. This battery powered Bluetooth speaker fits in standard cup holders. I bought a sling for it and a carabiner clip to hang it off the umbrella. We take it outside when we are having a barbecue party, or anywhere else we'd like it.

Dot lives in the living room

Compared to Tap and Echo, Dot is not a good speaker. Imagine cheap smartphone speakers -- that is what it sounds. If you intend to use it as a speaker you are better off plugging it into your stereo. However, it is inexpensive and does a good job acting as an extension. Many people may find Dot a safe and affordable introduction to Alexa.

Fact lookups

The ability to query Wikipedia by asking Alexa to "Wikipedia" a topic is incredibly useful. Often during a dinner conversation, we'll ask Alexa to Wikipedia a fact. My kids enjoy it and find it fun.

Shopping with Alexa

You can use Alexa to order things from Amazon. On occasion, such as Black Friday, Amazon offers a significant discount on orders placed using Alexa. While we have done this a few times, there is a lot of room for improvement. If you think you are going to shop using voice alone, think again. Voice shopping for anything other than what you've ordered in the past is a frustrating experience.

Along with the Alexa to-do list, the Alexa shopping list might as well not be there. The mobile Alexa app lacks any reminder functionality or integration with Google or iCloud reminders. It is impossible to turn an Alexa shopping list into an Amazon order. Surely one can come up with an IFTTT rule that will accomplish some of that, but why should consumers bother?

Things I wish Alexa did better

Alexa is meant to sit in the living room and to be shared by multiple people in the family. As such, skills that are specific to one person aren't particularly useful -- and may violate one's privacy. For example, if I tell Alexa to ask Fitbit for my latest stats, she will tell me how many steps I've taken and my activity level. If my wife asks the same question, Alexa will respond with my stats instead.

The technology is available today to detect who the person is by the sound of their voice. Alexa should be able to detect who is talking to her and respond with information relevant to that person. There should be no need to switch profiles.

As I pointed out above, Alexa could be better as a shopping assistant. As an Amazon Fresh customer, it would be convenient to have the ability to order groceries using Alexa. While I am cooking dinner and I see that we are almost out of some ingredient, I would love to be able to tell Alexa to add it to the upcoming Fresh delivery. Alas, customer requests seem to fall on deaf ears at Amazon.

No one bot will dominate the world

I don't believe there will be one single chatbot that will take over the world. Google Home is not an Alexa killer. Alexa is not a Siri killer either. The reason is that they have different skills. The A.I. is the new UI and chat the new UX, which means multiple chat and speech bots with different, purpose-specific skill sets will be used by most people.

Despite Alexa's momentum, there may be some overlap between Alexa and Google Home and I can see some people deciding to buy one or another. However, it is unlikely that Alexa will ever replace Siri or Cortana will replace Google Home. Until a chatbot capable of passing the Turing test comes along, these gadgets will continue to stick to their niche skill sets.

Some chatbots will live in the home, some in your car. Some will be your personal trainers, yet others will be your means of getting work done. There is no sense in trying to pit them against one another, and instead, consider each one based on its own merits and abilities.

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