One week with Alexa

Trying to control my rudimentary smart-home setup is a different story. I have three Philips Hue bulbs in lamps around my home, and Alexa can always understand when I ask her to turn them on. Anything more complicated than that is a crapshoot: Sometimes she’ll bring the brightness down to 50 percent, and sometimes she has no idea what I’m asking her. Same goes for leaving myself reminders. If I give Alexa a simple command like “remind me to buy eggs,” she’s fine. Almost anything more complex than that is hit-or-miss to the point where her mangled interpretations have become a running joke.

I don’t mean to make Alexa sound bad; most of the time she handles my commands just fine, so long as they’re reasonably simple. Every once in awhile, she’s even able to remember the context around what I ask so that I didn’t need to ask a slew of repetitive questions. When I asked her in which year John F. Kennedy was assassinated, she answered correctly; she then correctly answered the question “How many kids did he have?” That’s important: She knew “he” was “John F. Kennedy” without me needing to say it again. Alexa definitely still needs work as a conversationalist, though, and Amazon knows it: Alexa’s chief scientist has said prolonged chats are part of the company’s vision.

Beyond that, Alexa isn’t the best at answering general-knowledge questions. Sure, she can pull information from web searches, Wikipedia and more, but she’s still miles behind Google’s Assistant when it comes to scouting out answers to my inane questions. That almost doesn’t matter, though, because developers have come to embrace Alexa with surprising affection. As I write this, Alexa has over 15,000 “skills” — Amazon’s term for all the voice-controlled applets and services that make the assistant more than just a friendly voice in a tube. I’ve asked Alexa to order a pizza (and canceled because she doesn’t support good pizza places) and then played a streamlined version of Jeopardy.

So yeah, Alexa is a super-capable assistant that works best when you talk to her as if she were a toddler. If that dynamic isn’t odd enough, she’s also a shop assistant at the Everything Store.

Among my friends and colleagues, I have a reputation for being a pretty indiscriminate shopper. Do I need that three-pack of breathable running socks? Sure, but only if I upgrade my running shoes. You could call this a disorder, or perhaps, merely a lack of discipline. Either way, I was concerned that having an Amazon shopkeeper living in a black plastic tube with me would lead to many frictionless, frivolous purchases. I needn’t have worried. Alexa’s skill as a shopping assistant is well-documented: You can purchase almost anything from Amazon’s seemingly infinite store shelves with just a few commands. Thankfully, Alexa is terrible at idle browsing.

Let’s go back to those running socks. Unless I know exactly which ones I want, I would just ask her to “buy me some running socks.” Alexa thinks for a second and tells you all about the highest-ranking result for that search query. If that doesn’t work, well, she’s off to search result No. 2. It makes total sense that shopping with Alexa would work like that, but that doesn’t make it any less tedious.

For all the good that Alexa is capable of, she sometimes just freaks me out. She’ll just be sitting there, totally inert, when I notice her blue listening light come to life out of the corner of my eye. What the hell? Turns out, they’re false positives from the ever-present TV or YouTube video I have running, and they’ve thankfully become less common.

Now, I’m not vain enough to think anyone would want to spy on me, but it’s not like mass surveillance is impossible. I know that if Alexa were recording everything we said, a shitstorm of unholy proportions would land on Jeff Bezos’s doorstep. Still, part of my paranoid brain can’t help but wonder. Is it possible? Maybe? There’s also the conundrum of constantly referring to a technically sexless disembodied voice as a “she” like I have been. Based on her name and her voice, Amazon very clearly intended for Alexa to be female, but there are moments when bossing around a subservient assistant can feel paternalistic.

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