February 7, 2017 JT Mudge

Amazon Alexa or: How I Learned to Stop Shouting and Love the Echo

As emerging technologies go, voice assistance and automation still seem a bit clunky. They don’t always understand us and I hate to repeat myself. Let me say that again – I HATE to repeat myself.

Voice enabled devices have two common problems that they have not yet overcome: understanding what we are saying and understanding why we are saying it (context).

That’s not to say that it is not an amazing feat that these devices can understand as well as they do. When my 5-year-old is mumbling to Alexa, it can understand her about 80% of the time. However, when she is SHOUTING, Alexa only understands her about 20% of the time. (That in itself is interesting and the discussion of an upcoming post).

Instead of getting frustrated, I have learned to accept Alexa for what she is: new technology that excels at simple tasks that make our lives easier (and I would argue better).

So why do I love Alexa? Here are five skills (apps) that I use every day and why they make me happy.

Music

The first skill here is my #1 absolute favorite. Why? Well, first of all I love music, all types (classic rock, jazz, house, even some hip-hop and yes, country). Good music is good music. I am always quizzing my family “Who sings/plays this?” We play music much more than we used to, and a much wider variety. And now they can quiz me!

But to get the most out of Alexa’s music ability, you need to go beyond the Amazon Prime music library. It is great, but lacks certain features and its free library is not as large as others.

We use three services, Amazon, Spotify, and Pandora (as well as radio stations via TuneIn – gotta get my local NPR).

If you cannot find a song on one, you can sometimes find it on another. I prefer Spotify for a few important reasons: wider selection, my playlists I play at work are all there, and I can control it from my app! This last bit is important. Remember my 5-year-old? When she really wants to play a song and Alexa can’t understand her, I just open my Spotify app, select the song, and it starts playing on Alexa. Magic.

Shopping List

This one is great for our family. Now when we run out of granola bars or milk, anyone can just add it to the list. New items can be added from home even while I am shopping. That is amazing. No more lists on the fridge that no one ever uses or little pieces of paper that get lost (or typing on tiny phone keyboards). Thanks to Alexa, we are always stocked with granola bars. Now if I can just get the kids to throw the empty boxes in the pantry away.

Home Automation

This is one I am hot and cold on (and no, that is not meant to be a Nest pun). I usually do not like to spend money on something (like light switches) when the ones I have work perfectly well. However, what sort of technologist would I be if I did not at least try it out.

I purchased a Belkin wi-fi light switch for our kitchen and hooked it up to Alexa – and now I see the light (ok, this pun was intended). My house has an open floor plan and the family room is next to the kitchen. Now when someone forgets to turn off the kitchen light, I can just say “Alexa, turn off the light” and bingo. Light off. Have my hands full of popcorn, napkins, and drinks? “Alexa, turn off the light”. Lazy and don’t want to lift my hands above my waist – “Alexa, turn off the light.”

Jokes

OK, this is not my favorite, but my 5-year-old LOVES it, so I better include it. Alexa tells good “dad” jokes and I usually get a chuckle as well. And my daughter is learning actual jokes that get a laugh at parties.

Timer

This one is very convenient. When I am cooking I do not want to wash my hands just to set a timer. Also, this is perfect for the “You can have ten more minutes of screen time” parenting assistance. In fact, now I can blame Alexa – “I didn’t say it was bath time, Alexa did!”

Love It or Learn to Love It

Alexa and other voice devices are not yet set to take over our lives. They misunderstand us and can drive us crazy. And it can be faster to just use our phones sometimes. But these devices are getting better every day. Soon they will be as ubiquitous as our phones, and for me at least, it already is.

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