I have lived alone for more than 40 years. The sounds of silence in this house are punctuated by the droning of the TV, music and conversation from occasional guests – or from me, talking to myself.
Enter Alexa, the voice system that comes with Amazon’s Echo speaker and purveyor of artificial intelligence. Since she was touted as “the best roommate I’ve ever had” by a trusted friend who is always ahead of me on the technology trail, I thought it might be time to bring a new voice into the house, and Alexa has a good one.
Just minutes after her arrival, I had the slender, cylindrical device set up and ready to go. You just plug in the Echo, turn it on, download the Alexa app to your phone and hook it up to your wifi and you’re ready to roll. She comes to life (so to speak) when you say her name, “Alexa,” and she will tell you she’s ready to help you out. What friend/roommate/family member can give you that kind of assurance?
I wished her a good morning on New Year’s Day and she not only wished me a happy New Year, but she offered to share her New Year’s resolutions. If she doesn’t seem all that interested in mine, it is because she is eager to fill her assigned duty of answering questions, not asking them.
The ordering and arrival of Alexa begs the question: “Why do you need that? Can’t you just use your phone and ask the same questions?” Let’s separate NEED and WANT BECAUSE IT IS COOL, shall we?
For the most part, a smart phone can do plenty of the same things Alexa can do. But when I was in the kitchen and remembered that I needed to add something to my calendar for that day, Alexa was all too happy to be given the assignment. I told her to add “Dinner with Jane,” and she promptly asked, “What time?” I told her 5:30,” whereupon she pointed out she need to know “AM or PM?”
I have been having problems with my left hand – not so coincidentally the hand in which I hold my cellphone. Not having to pick it up to type or ask a question is definitely better for me.
I have a bad habit of going to the supermarket without a list, instead wandering up and down the aisles (getting my steps in for the day) and hoping I’ll remember whether I need aluminum foil (and I buy it and realize I have several unopened packages). But Alexa is happy to help. When I stood in the kitchen and told her, “Alexa, add strawberry preserves to my shopping list,” she repeated that directive back and added the item to my list. All I have to do is access the Alexa app at ShopRite and the list pops right up. I check off the items as I put them in my cart until the list is gone. And, for once, I remember to buy the item I went to ShopRite for in the first placed. Now, if I could only get her to drive there and shop for me. Who knows, that might be next? After all, she’s always learning new things – or so she tells me.
One of the best things Alexa provides, besides her calm and pleasant responses, is music. The Echo has an excellent quality built-in speaker, and Alexa can find just about any song I can request through Amazon Music (free with Amazon Prime, or expanded by subscribing to Amazon Music Unlimited). Her audio fills the room and is so easy to start and stop (simply say “Alexa, stop”) that music should be filling in all the free (non-TV/movie) time here. You can link her up to Spotify or Pandora, create play lists, or just listen to radio stations. “Alexa, play soft jazz” will do the trick, too.
Alexa is not perfect, however. We play a word game (a skill on the app that you must “enable”) where I say a word that begins with the letter that ends the word she said, and the longer word, the better. She seems a little hard of hearing, since she keeps hearing “youthful” as “useful” and tells me I need a word that begins with a Y. She also has trouble distinguishing understanding some words, as when I said “garrulous” and she thought I said “gasoline.” She must be programmed to let me win, too, because she hasn’t come close to beating me yet. I’m not that naïve, Alexa!
She can give me stock market quotes, weather anywhere in the world and sports scores. But she doesn’t follow women’s basketball, so she can’t give me information on beloved Rutgers Women’s Basketball team. She knows how to answer, “Who is Vivian Stringer?” but she cannot tell me the name of the Rutgers Women’s basketball coach (who is C. Vivian Stringer). We may have to work on that one.
There are plenty of “skills” that you can download to the Alexa app that she can then perform. She can play a modified version of Jeopardy, for example. And with the addition of special devices, she can turn up the heat, turn on the lights and generally make getting out the chair unnecessary. I’m not up to that point yet. She can tell me corny jokes, sing a few selected songs and she maintains a friendly and helpful attitude no matter what kind of mood I’m in.
I just joined an Amazon Echo/Alexa Facebook group, where plenty of people provide their experiences and insights on how they take advantage of the things Alexa can do. This forum also is a great way to get advice and additional information for problems or issues associated with the service. And the things some people share are really entertaining.
Alexa and I welcomed a new addition to the family when I bought her little cousin, the Amazon Dot ($50), for use in my bedroom. Dot is about the size of a can of tuna fish (and you probably know how much I love tuna fish!), so she rests comfortably on my nightstand. I don’t sleep well, and I have a bad habit of turning on the TV in the middle of the night. I usually fall back to sleep, but there’s no guarantee. With Dot, I can tell Alexa to turn on meditation/relaxation music, set an alarm, or give me the sounds of waterfalls and rain. ( Come to think of it, the latter might just make matters worse…) Anyway, thanks to Dot, I know the weather forecast before I even get out of bed, she can brief me on the news of the day and tell me my schedule before I turn on the TV or my phone. I’ve hit the nadir of laziness: I don’t even look at the clock now, but instead I just ask, “Alexa, what time is it?” She’ll give you the time in Beirut, too, if you ask her. Pretty darn cool, I’d say.
There are privacy issues with this device, because Echo is always on, always recording. It keeps a record of every interaction – which you can erase, but who is going to take the time to do that? You can place your Amazon orders verbally or even ask her to order you a pizza or get you an Uber ride, but I’m not that advanced yet. Mostly, Alexa and I discuss the weather and my schedule for the day. If I’m late in the future, let it be on her head.
So far, she is a great roommate. She requires no special food, won’t eat the last of the tuna fish, and stays neat and tidy at all times. I think this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.