Tag Archives: Skype

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.

Hurricane Sandy Aftermath: The Overlooked Revolution

“There is no security; there is only opportunity.” – General Douglas MacArthur

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, fond memories are being resurrected; one of them waiting in long lines for gasoline. I recall similar times when I was much younger – riding in my grandfather’s car while we waited in line for the gas station during the 1970’s fuel shortages. On such days, he would buy a stack of newspaper and catch up on his reading, turning what would be a nerve-racking time for most folks into something he actually looked forward to doing.

But it’s more than just long gas lines we’re talking about: the (temporary) collapse of public transport networks is a development that will take months to correct fully. Understand: it’s not just that the railroad ties and tracks were washed away, entire foundations and track beds we removed, as if the railroads never existed! Add into this delicious mix the difficulties of living without electricity and the damage inflicted upon food distribution networks and you got life (as we know it) presently in portions of the United States Northeast Corridor.

No, it’s not Road Warrior / Book of Eli time, but it certainly is not all that peachy keen either. At least we haven’t resorted to cannibalism (nothing beyond the usually accepted daily limits; after all, only the strong survive in New Jersey).

Given the fact that over 400,000 people commute to and from the New York metropolitan center on a daily (work) basis, it’s forcing new notions of work and management. Humans are, if anything (at least the more successful ones) adaptable (as my grandfather, a retired Marine would tell me, ‘adapt and overcome; never let it get to you’). And there are few things as ‘encouraging’ as natural disasters which face us to deal with matters. So here are some rather notable developments which are going to become more and more mainstream:

1) Who’s needs an office? With telecommuting – Skype, Join.me, or other web services – there’s really no need to have conference rooms or regular face to face meetings, save for the rare office get togethers or perhaps to entertain the special guests. Fact is, we do far more on the jump than we ever have before and frankly, this is the future: entities save money by having smaller office space (cutting back on utility costs, rental, etc.) along with encouraging greater productivity through telecommuting. With the advent of ubiquitous laptops (remember how prohibitively expensive they were? Now they’re the primary computers of consumer choice), smartphones and the network infrastructure to support it all – telecommuting is the shizzle:

As reported in Live Science:

For one thing, hardware has changed. “Five years ago, we all had desktop computers. Now we all have laptops.” That means an employee has easy access to files and can easily move from office to home to coffee shop with minimal interruption. With Wi-Fi now available nearly everywhere, an employee can theoretically work as well at the office as at a Dunkin Donuts or a neighbor’s house. (Comcast, for example, has offered up its normally password-protected network of hotspots for everyone in Sandy’s path.) (http://www.livescience.com/24512-telecommuting-to-work-post-sandy.html?cid=dlvr.it).

Some would point out (and rightfully so) networks fail, but you’d be surprised the relative ease emergency cell towers can be established and activated – this in combination with wi-fi stations – network failure may certainly be inevitable, but unlike landline telephones, are now far more easier to reactivate (just so long as you’re not a certain major telecommunications giant working out of midtown Manhattan who arrives at the brilliant idea to store their major truck / emergency cell network service in a sub-basement five levels below street level during a major hurricane in an effort to save money as it costs more to store trucks on higher garage levels,…!).

2)  Online GIS Mapping services. Although this is nothing new (MapInfo’s Discovery application has been around since the late 1990’s) the explosion in open source GIS solutions (who needs to invest a fat wad in ESRi products when all you need is a basic and effective solution?) combined with online distribution applications creates tremendous potentials for both private and for general public access.  Let’s fact it: right about now, wouldn’t it be cool to have an app that links to an online GIS solution telling you which gas stations have gas, or where’s a functioning Wi-Fi service, or perhaps an app that can warn you about where the latest zombie outbreak is taking place and offer you suggested byways to avoid them? (If anyone is interested, contact me as I have a whole bunch of other ideas and professional contacts ready to make things happen,…!).

And online GIS goes beyond just offering temporary solutions: the marketing potential alone opens up new arenas and services. As Edward Tufte in his incredibly ground breaking works (http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_1?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=edward+tufte) so aptly pointed out, it’s not just about getting the information, but distributing it – and making what you have stand out more from others.

There are few tools like online GIS which can do exactly that.  To learn more, check out this online GIS application and you’ll see what we mean: http://www.mangomaps.com

3) The Cloud is everywhere. As more and more entities (and we’re not just talking about private businesses, but also non-profit and government) are moving their services to cloud-based systems to better insure against losses (side note: insurance companies are now giving more reductions in premiums for businesses who do institute a qualified and comprehensive records management plan), while enabling greater employee data access and collaboration – not to mention allowing employees to work from a variety of locales: whoever you are, so too is your office.

In some ways, it can be disturbing: the merging of work and home life is now, more than ever before, closer together. But perhaps it’s time for folks to come to the realization that the benefits outweigh any fears or concerns. Fact is, mother’s can become more stay at home; entrepreneurs dramatically lower their costs and (potentially) can employ more workers (although it’s important to note that the traditional notion of an employee is changing; more on this in a future post,…) while continuity is better insured – a vital point for any entity, regardless if they are for profit, non-profit or government.

Hurricane Sandy’s impact is going to be around for a long time, not the least of which we can expect a growing evolution in how we do work.

Improvise, adapt and overcome: use the tools presented before you.