Say: “Alexa, turn on the living room lights”

Update: It’s creepy, don’t do it.

Say it. No, really. Say it aloud.

You might feel silly the first time. But the second time it feels great. Especially because Amazon Echo actually works.

We were sold the hype of Siri. Sadly, Siri just doesn’t have the knowledge to understand conversational requests, nor the power to fulfill them. The Washington Post scooped the imminent release of Viv this past week, Siri’s younger sibling that hopefully will work.

But that power already exists with the Echo. Whether Viv will be able to leapfrog Alexa and takes over the market is speculation at this point. These musings are about virtual assistants finally coming to age.

First, what makes Amazon Echo so powerful is the combination of:

  • Hearing you from everywhere; you don’t have to shout “hey Siri” three times.
  • The ability to understand natural language; you can speak naturally. You don’t have to learn boolean logic, like we did to become proficient with Google.
  • Alexa has skills. There is a phenomenal API that Amazon is actively cultivating with developers at hackathons, and funding. Each week I get an email with updates about how Alexa has learned something new.

A caveat on the first point. That’s somewhat scary, how Alexa can hear everything. A friend of mine set up a network filter to see what is actually transmitted back to the mothership. He said that the Echo only sends small packets of data when you say the wake word “Alexa”. Amazon confirms this on their FAQs, also they confirm that you can delete the history of your searches, and it will actually be deleted from their servers… You still have to trust them on that.

Previously when I read about smart home devices it sounded quaint, a hobby to try sometime; like drones. But try saying ”Alexa, turn on the living room lights” and imagine your living room lights turning on.

It’s not about being lazy. You can turn your whole home off in one go. If you have multiple lamps in a room, like we do, you can turn them all on or off at will – with a phrase.

But virtual assistants are about a whole lot more than living room lights.

Technology has created a lot of opportunities by making our lives easier. When I was younger and complained about typing a paper for school my mother told me about how she wasn’t allowed more than 3 typos on a page. If she made more than 3 typos on a page, she would have to resubmit the whole paper.

How much spontaneous creativity do you think happened in those papers when you had to retype entire pages just to move a paragraph around? That’s the power of word processors, of technology.

Factories have been implementing robots to do menial, and dangerous, tasks. This is paralleled in humanity’s move to an agrarian based society; which, freed up enough time for humanity to focus on creating culture and technology.

Virtual assistants are finally coming of age and I’m excited to see where they go from here.