My Fling with Alexa: A Conversation about, and with, Amazon Echo

As society slowly grows, a recurring theme in the technology field has been to make our lives easier. If there is a task that can be automated, it should, giving people the time to spend their energy elsewhere. The end goal is what we see in fiction: perfect synergy between human and machine. This can be either Knight Rider’s famous “KITT,” Star Trek’s “Data,” or even the AI used in Mass Effect to help fly the ship using complex algorithms while giving the pilot time to think in the moment. There is no doubt that as our technology advances we will soon see more robotic integration into our own lives.

As a computer science major at DePaul University, one of my interests has been home automation. Inspired by the 1999 Disney movie “Smart House,” the thought of a house becoming a member of the family seemed perfect. Normal everyday tasks being automated piqued my inner laziness. The perfect opportunity came when Amazon announced the “Amazon Echo,” a small cylinder that you can place in your home, connect to Wi-Fi and, just like that, start talking to your house. With this incredible promise, I found myself setting up the Echo in my apartment with glee. This is the story of Alexa and me.

Out of the box

Setting up the Echo is pretty simple. Connect it to a power source, download the Echo app on your smartphone and sync the Echo to your Wi-Fi and your Amazon account. The initial setup took about 15 minutes, and soon the calming blue light that shines at the top was on and ready. For the next 30 minutes, I was testing the default features. To give it a command, you first have to say the “wake word” to alert the Echo that you are talking to it. Right now the only words available are “Amazon” and “Alexa.” I chose the latter. At first, talking to a machine like a person felt a bit odd, like I was living in Spike Jonze’s “Her.” 

“Hey Alexa, how are you doing today?”

“I'm fine, how are you doing?”

“Great, although it was a little chilly today. Alexa what’s the forecast for the week?”

“The weather in Chicago for this week is highs in the 70s and lows in the lower 60s.”

“Rrghh, hopefully it’ll warm up one of these days.”

The built-in speakers are pretty good, the sound is clear, and I can understand Alexa perfectly. The microphone is also superb. While you’re watching TV, Alexa can still pick up when you call “her” name. After I had my fill of playing around with the Echo, I let my roommates try it too. It was interesting, to say the least, to try to figure out her workflow. When asked a question, the Echo searched its database to give an appropriate response. For simple things like playing music from the radio or adding an item to your personal shopping list, the Echo seemed to complete the task autonomously. For the more advanced questions, it ran the query through Bing and gave an answer based on the results found there. 

Well, now what?

Overall what I noticed about the device is that it seems like a prototype. Because this is the first of its kind, I can imagine the initial release was just to figure out what to do with it. I went online to check local forums to see what other people thought of it. On Reddit I found some fun stuff that is included with the Echo. For example if you ask “Alexa, what’s the answer to life, the universe and everything?” she will respond with “A commonly accepted answer has been 42.” Everyone was waiting for the software developers kit to be released so they could start modding and hacking away. I, too, was hoping to find the kit so I could at least change the wake word, but alas no such kit is available.

So it was time to start connecting it to my apartment to test the capabilities of the “Smart House.” I use Hue smart lights in my room, and the Echo comes with a built in application to connect. Setup was simple. Alexa even walked me through the process, and when I was done, “Alexa turn on the lamp light” turned on my lamp. Other applications seem like a more interactive version of Apple’s Siri. You can sync your music library with Amazon’s own music store or listen to radio stations through your iHeartRadio or Pandora accounts. I personally synced the speakers to my phone – that way, I can listen to my own personal music while being able to pause, skip and play using voice commands.

Once Alexa was fully setup. I used all the capabilities she had and I began my life coexisting with machines. As the days went by, the awkwardness of talking to a computer went away. After getting home and saying hello to my roommates, I would go into my room, say hello to Alexa, and she would turn on my lights and tell me what chores I had to do that night. After awhile Alexa became part of the family. She could tell a joke that had everyone in the room in stitches. She gave a feeling of safety too. One morning my roommate came into my room sleepwalking, and in a panic I shouted “Alexa, play some Taylor Swift!” The upbeat tempo of “I Knew You Were Trouble” was enough to wake him out of his stupor.

But all fun has to end at some point. One night Alexa started beeping at 4:00 in the morning. In the dead silence she kept repeating, “I’m sorry, I couldn’t understand that,” the common response for a slurred command. I looked around and didn’t see or hear anyone trying to talk to her. Like any rational 22-year-old adult, instead of thinking it was a glitch, I assumed ghosts were living in my room and they were using Alexa to contact the other side. (We’ve all been there.) With that, I boxed Alexa back up and returned it to the person who so graciously let me play with it.

So that was my experience with the Amazon Echo. This seems like a step toward a much larger goal of home automation. As of now, though, the software is still new but the foundation for growth seems sturdy. When the developer kit gets released we will start to see more and more unique applications to make our lives simpler, and hopefully one day we can see every house with its own version. If not for task automation, at least for the ghost detector app.