Monthly Archives: September 2016

The Age of Alexa

 

As a birthday gift for my daughters, Flora and Cora, their grandfather purchased for them an Amazon Echo (aka “Alexa”).

If you’re not familiar, the Amazon Echo / Alexa is a voice command controlled free-standing computer (with a nice speaker system to boot!) that links with your wireless network. Measuring some 9.3 inches with a circumference of 3.3 inches, Alexa can just about fit anywhere. In addition, it looks attractive (in a manner of speaking) and readily plugs into a regular wall outlet for power (it connects to your wireless network; no wired connections are required). With some adjustments and minimal amount of programming (took me all of 15 minutes to get it going) you’ll be able to give direct voice commands. Alexa can either answer your inquiries or (depending on your set up) control the lights in your house, control your thermostat, give you automatic news and sports updates as well as tell you the weather, your commuting time or even where the nearest restaurant (down to the type – Belgium ale house, Indian, Chinese, etc.) is to your house.

But doing a little research and experimentation, Alexa can do a lot more – and not just for your home (more on this in a moment).

As an old-timer, I’m amazed at this recent technological development if for no reason than I can appreciate what’s involved. First off, I’ve been working with voice command / recognition software since it first came out back in the 1990’s: things have come a long way. Used to be you had to spend about an hour just to ‘train’ the software/computer to recognize your voice (what with your inflections, accents, voice idioms, etc.) and then more time spent on getting it to do what you wanted it to do – open files, do basic computer commands, etc. And even then, it was rarely perfect: if you were hitting 95% accuracy, you were down great.

With Alexa, there was no hesitation: no training. Alexa was out of the box and running down the road in mere minutes.

Damn; that’s powerful.

No matter who you are, so long as you speak the language that it’s set for, it’ll respond. So literally out of the box, I and both my daughters were taking and using Alexa. Even now, my guests – upon visiting – now ask Alexa for the weather or for sport scores, along with local news as a matter of course, just as they would ask anyone else.

But aside from Alexa being able to give you a host of information – such as cooking recipes, bartending (excuse me, “Mixology”) recipes for drinks or for random facts (‘on this date,…’), with some adjustments and hardware / interface additions, Alexa can water your lawn, control /monitor your house alarms.

Sometimes, amusing situations can arise – such as when my younger daughter asked “Alexa: how old is the Earth?”

Alexa replied “The Earth is 5.35 Billion years old.”

“I knew it! Those people who keep saying that the Earth is only 7,000 years old don’t know what they’re talking about!”

So it’s all fun and games, right?

Not when you check out the IFTTT page for Alexa (IFTT – “If / then” user programming routines). Alexa comes with an ability for folks to program basic interface commands enabling users to link Alexa to various apps and also create routines. Want something done automatically? With a little bit of simple programming, anyone can make their Alexa do things automatically and with a mere voice command.

The potential for Alexa can go beyond just a cool item for the average household: the potential for business applications is also well worth considering. Aside from stock indexes, one could create business services and routines both for the average user and for the business / service end of things. Already, there are ‘recipes’ for users to link to their Evernote and Todoiast, along with dictating short emails (sending them out) or dictating voice message for your Skype. As one example, I can set up and schedule calendar events on my Google calendar just by using my voice – and it’ll appear on all of my calendars (phone, computer, etc. simultaneously).

I would not be surprised to see businesses – especially those who profess the notion of being ‘lean and mean’ – installing Echoes in their offices as means to better streamline operations (not to mention that Echoes could also be of good use for non-profit and governmental agencies as well).

In a manner of speaking, although this is not exactly new technology, the way it’s being recast is nothing short of remarkable. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the Echo came from Amazon. After all, as I had previously written, Amazon and the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) have been quietly working together for seveal years now, with Amazon’s in-house computer network now being the repository of the CIA’s records – and ground zero for a development project based in Vancouver, Canada for true AI (Artificial Intelligence) development (https://shockwaveriderblog.wordpress.com/2012/10/11/the-cia-and-jeff-bezos-working-together-for-our-the-future/) utilizing quantum computing. Feel free to read my past posting on this subject matter: it’s well worth the read and helps one to better appreciate what’s taking place now.

I cannot help but wonder if Alexa is but one minor result  / spin-off from that ongoing effort. And granted, Alexa may sound awesome and smart, but it’s certainly not about to pass the Turing Test.

If Alexa is any indication, we are indeed entering a new age  – the Age of Alexa.