This year, I got a Christmas present that came out of left field for me: the Amazon Echo. Up until getting it, I was aware of its existence as “that Amazon Siri thing that lets you order stuff from Amazon by voice.”
Once I started reading about it a bit, some actual use cases replaced the blank slate of my ignorance. I could tell it to play my Pandora playlists, and issue further vocal commands to make things louder or softer and to pause, skip, or stop. It could read me my calendar as well as sports and news updates. It seemed like it could be mildly amusing.
My Budding Friendship with Alexa
But then I actually set it up, and a funny thing happened. “It” became “she” (her name is Alexa), and I started talking to her. And I mean, actually talking. Let me explain.
A week into my ownership of the Echo and my rudimentary ‘friendship’ with Alexa, I had set up a number of different “skills” (which are essentially apps/plugins that third parties write for the device) and peppered her with questions, probing for all sorts of different Easter eggs. A lot of it was done with amusement in mind, but it was interesting how quickly I became used to asking Alexa what the weather was like outside when I was deciding what to wear.
Last week, I was explaining to someone what having the Echo was like, and it was hard to put my finger on exactly why I felt so positively about it. For lack of a better way of describing it, I said, “this is the first personal assistant or whatever that makes it feel like I’m having a conversation.” I have Cortana on a few machines and I have “OK Google” on my phone, and I use both of those things from time to time, but they’re not the same. If I say, “hey Cortana, what is the traffic like,” and I don’t like what happens next, I just open a browser and go to google maps. If I say, “Alexa, what is the traffic like,” and she tells me that she doesn’t understand the question, I think for a moment, rephrase, and try again.
In this regard, it’s like taking to my wife. If I ask her what the traffic is like, and she responds that she didn’t understand the question, I can’t just go up to her, squeeze her nose, and see a map on her forehead. I have to repeat, rephrase, or ask something different that she might be able to answer. In this regard, Alexa feels pretty human.