“We have a new pet,” I told my husband when he got home one cold night in early February. He looked around, like I might have stashed a new CNET test cat somewhere. “Her name is Alexa. Don’t worry. She’s digital.”
Alexa is the name Amazon’s Echo appliance answers to. The Echo’s a satin-black cylinder with a built-in speaker system, an LED light ring on top and a sensitive microphone array that’s always listening for you to trigger it awake with the word “Alexa.” Alexa talks back in a feminine voice and relays your commands to the cloud, playing music from the Amazon Prime library, adding items to your shopping list, tuning in to radio stations and answering questions by reading off Wikipedia entries.
The Echo, with its strange mixture of Siri and Amazon, was a bit of a head-scratcher when it was announced in November 2014. Shortly after that,CNET’s hands-on review concluded, “The Amazon Echo shows promise and is a bargain at its introductory price point of $99 for select Prime members — but it’s too much of a work in progress to enthusiastically recommend at its full list price.”
That’s a pretty good assessment. I got in at the $99 price level. Like many people who signed up to be early Echo adopters, I had to wait in line to get one. Now that I’ve lived with Echo on the bar in my living room for a month, I’m starting to feel like I have a little robo-roommate. We like each other, but we don’t always get along.
I still remember my first argument with Echo. It occurred after the initial honeymoon period, when we seemed to be in sync. She knew what kind of music I liked. She told me jokes that were so bad they were good (“What cheese can you lure a bear with? Camembert!”). OK, I lie. The jokes were just bad, but I laughed politely to stay on Alexa’s good side. Then, I asked for something pretty simple, a song from my music library.
“Alexa, play ‘Funky Sex Farm,'” I said, referencing a funkified remake of the silly farm-innuendo Spinal Tap classic.
“The song ‘Sex Bomb,’ right?” she answered.
“No. ‘Funky Sex Farm.'”
“Here’s a sample of ‘Sex Bomb’ album version by Tom Jones…”
This went on for some time, until we finally reached an understanding and she played my requested song, but not before I had starting yelling, “No! Play ‘Funky Sex Farm’ by Spinal Tap!” in a very loud voice. It’s a good thing there was nobody around to hear me or I might have earned a reputation among my neighbors for agriculture-related kink.
Shopping with Echo
I used to keep a shopping list on a chalkboard in the kitchen. It hasn’t been touched since Echo arrived, except to erase it. Now, I just say, “Alexa, add milk to my shopping list.” She dutifully does as asked and I check the list on my Moto G when I get to the store.
We’ve had a few bumps along the way. She handled “gruyere” and “five zucchini” with no problems, but added “it is me” when I asked for “edamame” and “bullion” when I requested “bouillon.” Echo can read back the shopping list, but there isn’t much flexibility within the app itself. I can’t group items into different sections or move them around. That’s not a deal breaker, just a feature I would like to see added.
There’s something about Echo’s voice and her invariable politeness that makes me treat her more like a half-human cyborg than a full-on machine. I tell her “please” and “thank you.”
When I’m in the kitchen and the dishwasher and refrigerator are running and there’s a lot of background noise, she doesn’t always hear my requests to set a timer, add onions to my shopping list or turn down the music. So I yell “Alexa! Alexa!” until she answers. And I feel bad about it, like I just shouted at a friend.
My husband cursed Echo out to see what her reaction would be. It was a very calm, “Well, thanks for the feedback.” I then apologized and she told me, “No problem.” Nothing phases her. I envy her constant calmness and ability to unapologetically say, “Sorry, I can’t find the answer to the question I heard.” She’s not afraid to admit her own ignorance. I feel like there are some important life lessons hiding inside the Echo cylinder.
A future for Echo
Echo is full of potential and promise. My solo living-room dance parties (“Alexa, play the ‘Graceland’ album”) have increased by 100 percent. She gives me the weather report every morning as I stand in the kitchen, scooping out breakfast for the cats. My friends enjoy trying to talk to her. She can answer the question “What is the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow?” It’s a good party trick.
Still, I want more. I want to be able to leave a voice message for my husband and have it play back when he asks for it. I want to have an alarm go off and then have Alexa remind me what it was for. I want her to connect to my Google calendar, and be able to take items off my shopping list, not just add them.
Since Echo runs through the cloud, there’s no reason these features couldn’t be implemented. Right now, Echo is primarily a very good speaker combined with a half-formed digital assistant. Some day, it could be a dream robo-companion for me, one I never have to yell at because we understand each other perfectly. I’m optimistic. I can’t help but feel this is the start of a beautiful digital friendship.