Can Amazon's Alexa be the butler you always wanted?

Echo Dot (left) and Amazon Echo, a.k.a. Alexa.

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I welcomed a new family member last year. We call her Alexa, but her full name is Amazon Echo.

For those not familiar, Alexa is a voice-activated "digital assistant" that can play music, set an alarm or timer, record shopping lists, and do much more (including, apparently, ordering pounds of cookies and a dollhouse for your kids if parental locks are not installed). To get Alexa to do something you have to say "Alexa" before the command.

[This article was originally published in January 2017.]

What this means is that my two children (ages 6 and 2) spend a lot of their time screaming "ALEXA" at the top of their lungs. For the most part Alexa hears them from almost all parts of my two-bedroom apartment (though she responds more easily to mine and my husband's louder voices). 

How we use it 

So far, after having Alexa for about two months, we mostly use it to play music, give a daily news roundup (the default for that is National Public Radio), listen to NPR, and set timers for baking.

One problem with the Amazon Echo is that to do more exciting things, you have to download "skills," Amazon's version of apps. If you want to use that aforementioned shopping list, for example, you'll have to "get" a skill, and as someone with too many apps using up too much storage space on my phone already, I'd rather not, despite how handy it would be to bark my shopping list at Alexa and then have the list magically pop up on my phone while I walk through the aisles of my local D'Agastino. So, strike one.

Speaking of barking, though, it has crossed my mind that Alexa isn't helping teach my kids the importance of saying "please" and "thank you." I'd rather that they didn't think the best ways to get things done is by barking orders at something, even if that something is a machine and not their mother. Trying to teach them not to seems futile, since Alexa doesn't always "respond" unless it can hear them clearly.

My verdict—and what comes next

For now, Alexa is a fun gadget to have as a roommate. ("You have Alexa!" say most kids and adults when they walk into our living room and see her standing there, blue circle illuminating.) Plus, the speaker is pretty good. But it's certainly not like we couldn't live without it. Now, that said, once you get used to voice-activated device, having to press buttons on, say, a TV remote control seems like a hassle. (I know it sounds lazy, but trust me here.) 

If I had a "smarter" home, of course, I could link Alexa up to turn on and off my lights or lock the door when I lay in bed. But synergy between smart homes and Alexa is likely one of the less useful perks for most New Yorkers, especially when you're a renter and can't "smarten" up your space the way you'd like to.

Just like any new technology, though, we can expect Amazon Echo (and Google's version, Google Home) to keep expanding its features and becoming more easily integrated in other parts of our lives. Just yesterday, Wired published a story about just that.

"Before long," an article says, "Alexa, Siri, Google, and others like them will be woven into the fabric of your home, ready to fulfill your every need whim. Need milk? Tell your fridge. Forgot to close the garage door? Grumble about it to the mic in your dashboard. Want to order your post-marathon double cheeseburger and fries before even crossing the finish line? Scream an order into your smartwatch."

Wired points our that Alexa is about to become integrated into phones, hotel rooms, and cars: 

"In the year or so since Amazon opened the Alexa developer kit, no end of companies have integrated simple voice commands into their products. Yet this seamlessly connected world still feels faraway. The challenge isn’t in creating the devices, it’s in creating a consistent user experience as they proliferate."

In the meantime, let's all preempt it by teaching our kids some basic manners.

The voice-activated Amazon Echo is $179.99; if you're okay with tapping a button before speaking to Alexa and don't need to talk from across the apartment, you can get one for $129.99. The much smaller Echo Dot is even cheaper at $49.99, but it doesn't have its own full-size speaker, so you'll need to hook it up to whatever audio system you have to hear it better. Plus, you also must press a button before you can start ordering Alexa around. And what's the fun in that?



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