When I attended the ReWork Deep Learning conference in Boston in May 2016, one of the most interesting talks was about the Echo and the Alexa personal assistant from Amazon. As someone whose day job is AI, it seemed only right that I surround myself by as much as possible from other companies. This week, after it being on back order for a while, it finally arrived. At £50, the Echo Dot is a reasonable price, with the only negative I was aware of before ordering being that the sound quality “wasn’t great” from a reviewer.
Like most things these days, the packaging was simple, efficient and recyclable and I was impressed with the look of the dot – it was sleek and a cute little device. Setting it up and adding to your home network is very straight forward, and it found other devices (like the Amazon TV stick) that it could interact with.
One of the first things we did was change its activation word from “Alexa” to “Echo”1. On recognising it is being addressed, the echo spins a light around that stays active for a few seconds – if you continue to address it then it will analyse and respond to what you say. if you say nothing or it can’t understand then it will deactivate. I liked this – it actively listens for a short amount of time until it recognises that you have stopped talking, and then goes back to doing whatever it was doing prior to the command.
Predictably, we tried the example commands and got an update on our local weather, asked who the prime minister was and played the radio. And yes, the sound quality was hardly Bang and Olufsen, but it wasn’t bad at all, and still pretty good considering the size of the device.
My husband and I then tried some more questions:
Who is the foreign secretary?
I expected this to give an answer as easily as asking about the prime minister, but Alexa couldn’t find the answer. Since I tend to have the most RP voice in the household, I re-asked the question to see if this was a problem in voice analysis, but got the same response2. With my QA head on, I rephrased the question:
Who is the UK’s foreign secretary?
This time getting the correct answer3 but the phrasing of the answer was strange with Alexa declaring him the Foreign Minister, which is the equivalent in other countries but not here. However, there are a few things to note at this point. While the weather functions could infer the location, more general questions did not seem to be able to. So I tried another question that it should be able to infer missing information:
How far is it to Australia?
This time, Alexa understood that we meant “from here” and gave the answer in miles and kilometres “as the crow flies”4. So I think here you need to be patient that if Alexa doesn’t understand, try a little more information before you give up.
We asked Alexa for her opinions on other artificial assistants and got a very definitely pre-programmed politically correct answer. After postulating whether we should continue to refer to the echo as “it” we asked Alexa her opinion.
What is your gender identity?
Alexa identifies as female, although we’re still calling her “the echo”.
Can you explain your algorithms?
Alexa is fairly tight-lipped about this, although as much as you’d expect google search to be able to explain how its ranking algorithms work, but you can’t blame me for trying 😉
My daughter doesn’t quite have the voice to get Alexa’s attention but is very excited to interact with her, requesting that Alexa greets me when I get in from work, and I don’t suppose it will be too long until I hear her request Echo to help her with her homework…
As our normal energy saving bulbs fail, we’ll replace them with smart bulbs and get the echo to control those. It’s a shame that I can’t control the Roomba through the echo, but I can’t image it will be more than a few years until we have all the devices easily controlled.
We’ve used the timer function5 and the radio a lot, with some playing around with the volume. With a bit of configuration I can get my commute conditions sorted and connect it up so I can order whatever I don’t already have a dash button for…
So, does the echo differ from Siri or Cortana or Google Now? In terms of voice control there’s not much on the surface that differs – there’s a lack of contextual conversation and ambiguity understanding, but I do know that there is a lot behind the scenes and a lot of potential as a home assistant rather than a mobile assistant. There’s also the API, which is free, allowing anyone to create apps that integrate with Alexa. Now this is going to be fun to put together some integrations… I’d love to hear from anyone who has already used it.
I am really pleased with it – the echo is so much fun and at this price point I think it can be a Christmas present for a lot of people I know 😉
- It was very tempting to change it to a Star Trek “Computer…”, but with the amount of computers in my house we felt that we could get too many unintentional activations. 🙂 ↩
- This can also be checked on the Alexa app where you can see in detail what Alexa thought you said ↩
- Boris Johnson at the time of writing 😉 ↩
- I really wanted to ask how long that would take for a sparrow carrying a coconut, but sensible questions got the better of me 🙂 ↩
- I exerted a lot of self control to avoid asking for “begin auto-destruct sequence, authorisation Bastiman 4-7 Alpha Tango” when setting a timer for the oven… ↩