The Alexa and Echo line of devices from Amazon is more than your usual smart speaker. They enable users to “talk” to a disembodied presence in the house to give it commands, ask it questions, and a whole range of different things, then have this digital “voice assistant” respond by answering your question or conversation, or executing your command such as searching for a certain type of recipe online or switching on the thermostat.
Their inclusion in this list may come as a surprise since they don’t look like your stereotypical bot that walks or moves around with articulated limbs, but by the standards of machines this technology has advanced far enough to come closer to the dreams of science fiction books and movies by the way you can interact with it. As such, by definition, it has even more reasons why it’s perfectly suited for this list.
The Echo line of smart speakers that are capable of music playback, voice interaction, movie showtimes, asking for definitions or guidance, reading articles to you (text-to-speech), shop online, search the web (by voice even while you’re doing something else), directions to the nearest local restaurants, setting alarms, telling jokes, providing real-time information from weather to traffic reports, playing audiobooks, news briefs, radio stations and a whole range of other things.
In fact, you can order it to play music (like from Spotify), podcasts, or audiobooks from any room (wherever you are in the house) by connecting to any compatible device in your home by using only your voice.
Alexa isn’t alone in the race for home and AI-based personal digital assistants. Some of the largest tech companies have their own, including Siri (Apple), Google Assistant, Cortana (Microsoft) and so on. But while Google has its own smart speakers (Google Home) and it’s Assistant is available on mobile phones, Amazon’s answer to a true personal digital assistant is the most robust and refined for consumer and home use; particularly the natural feel to its operation.
In fact, it works very well that it practically becomes invisible and blends in the background, ready to answer you when you call on to it with your “wake” word (you can set it to respond when you say, “Alexa…,” “Echo…,” “Amazon…,” or “Computer…” then provide your query or command).
For example, you can call or message anyone by simply making voice commands, including while you’re doing other things (working, watching TV, cooking). You can simply ask it for the recipe of say, cream of onion soup, or a New York style pizza. Or ask specific questions such as “Alexa, tell me about Alexander the Great,” “Computer, who is Winston Churchill,” and just about anything.
You can let it do arithmetic or mathematics: “Amazon, what is 12 x 56?,” “Echo, How do you convert yards to meters,” “What is the square root of 96?”
Then there are commands you can order: “Alexa, add a dentist’s appointment to my to-do list tomorrow morning,” or work with compatible smart devices: “Echo, turn off the living room lights.” In fact, it can change the hue of a compatible light bulb by voice.
Control smart lights, garage doors, sprinklers, stereos, television. It can do a lot.
It won’t completely replace a top-end smart home hub for complex automation just yet, but it can do a lot of other things, more and better. And even then it is only a matter of time before complex automation will be part of its growing list of abilities.
In the meantime, it addresses this with aplomb, working with the likes of Zigbee, a popular system for controlling smart devices for homes and smart home hubs. That way, you can connect it to smart light bulbs, outlet plugs, door locks and other nifty accessories without the need to purchase a hub.
Amazon wants Alexa to be everywhere, so its Echo products and Alexa itself will work with any Alexa-compatible device, from those sold by Amazon (such as the Echo) to devices from partners such as Roombas, some Zigbee products, Philips Hue smart bulbs and smart robotic toys, to name just a few.
Amazon even has a sampling of such devices, as shown here.
Review and Rating
- Easy, simple setup
- Natural operation; gets out of the way
- Plenty of skills
- Skills (and skillsets) are constantly growing
- Artificial intelligence (AI) continually upgraded for continually improving abilities and features
- Third-party community of
- Good sound quality: It now comes with Dolby processing for even better, deeper, crisper sound
- Smart responses, actions, and executions
- Connect to instantly to other Echo devices using voice alone. Plenty of partners and compatible devices (and constantly growing)
- High level of speech synthesis and speech recognition allow for an exemplary ability to recognize voices and commands
- Speech output is of high quality, and close to natural
- Multiple microphones allow for great input of sound but also noise-cancellation technology, especially in "hearing" you from all directions when you give commands, even when it is playing music at the same time
- Sporadic reports of new versions of these devices may be rough on the edges sometimes in terms of setup and operations. They may also seem inferior to older, simpler models; until updates fix any issues occurring
- While it has a breadth of abilities with a wide range of commands, if your primary use for it is for random or specific questions specifically, it can answer most, but not as many as desired, and Google's Home speaker is better in this regard.
- Unsubstantiated concerns for spying and privacy
The Echo family of speakers and appliances are almost universally loved by users (save the few factory defects or software bugs that eventually get ironed out by updates). And for good reason: they provide decent sound and video quality at the least, and the understated inclusion of Alexa as its AI voice assistant plays a huge role in people engaging with it, before getting attached to it.
In fact, it started the trend of kids getting used to the voice interface and casually asking it questions (and getting answers effectively) by speaking to it instead of finding a keyboard and typing it.
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This is a robot disguised as a speaker (or whatever are other devices that are powered by Alexa).
You don’t need to program, set or type anything to it; you simply speak to it and make commands, ask for directions, ask for questions, and other verbal cues, even a limited level of conversation.
Though it includes many “skills” developed specifically for particular tasks, it is also imbued with its own form of machine learning and artificial intelligence, particularly in the way it parses spoken commands and executing sequences of actions to fulfill its users’ wishes.
In this way, it wasn’t hardcoded with answers to specific queries, but instead algorithmically developed so it learns on its own, then applies what it learned over time to perform its job better. As it gets better, it builds on its learning chest to provide its users with increasingly better results.
The Good: What We Like
It’s an AI that is sneaking its way into the homes and hearts of its owners, because it does its functions well, but also does a lot more than that, being a voice-activated, voice-operated digital assistant with a wide range of talents you can order to do, or just to have fun with.
It may not “look” like a robot, but it does the things you’d expect one to do, without looking goofy or look like a plaything, but rather is a highly functional, advanced device that fits just about anywhere and useful because you can interact with it (by voice, no less) and it doesn’t get in the way yet gets many a job done.
The Bad: What We Don’t Like
There isn’t much that is bad about it except only for circumstantial concerns of people regarding privacy and how the device may be spying on you. These are naturally unsubstantiated (and how are you supposed to make it work if not by letting it listen and wait for you to command it?), and Amazon itself has professed how they do not listen and store or eavesdrop on peoples’ homes and conversations. What’s more, you can switch the AI off if you wish.
Amazon’s Journey from Retail to the Cloud, then AI, and Beyond
While robot voice assistants were around for a long time, Amazon broke ground when it entered the market in a big way, betting that its then-nascent artificial intelligence technology was “good enough” for widespread adoption, then tying it to a great standalone product– in this first case, a speaker– and combining it thoroughly to create a whole new category of smart speakers.
Then they used that artificial intelligence (AI) beachhead not only to cement its presence in the home, serving as a springboard not only to keep people connected to Amazon but for future devices. A much easier task now that they already had a foot in the door.
In this way, Amazon arguably invented the category almost singlehandedly– or at least really popularised it in the mainstream– that other big players like Google and Apple actually had to play catchup.
Make no mistake about it, these devices are meant to be friendly and not look like robots, but they are, through and through. In fact, their AI technology brings them closer to the dream of real robots than you’d realize.
It’s similar to the way Amazon did it in the cloud computing (compute power as a utility, giving customers large and small access to enterprise-grade hardware by paying a recurring “rental” or subscription fee instead of outlaying millions of dollars in data centers and infrastructure.
In fact, Amazon would use its cloud infrastructure to great effect with Alexa, not just at a superficial level but integrally, having Alexa reside in the cloud and accessible by the millions of devices it enables.
The Alexa-enabled line of Echo speakers, Fire Tablets and devices are highly recommended. They do the things Alexa does.
They’re useful and fun out of the box and can be further tweaked with a large and constantly growing range of skills and the continuously improving core system whose artificial intelligence only gets more precise and better.
Beyond asking for music, you can use Alexa to search Wikipedia (“Alexa, who was Guy Fawkes?”), make quick cooking conversions (“Alexa, how many pints are in a gallon?), help with math homework (“Alexa, what’s 9 x 48?”), or create a to-do list (“Alexa, add ‘make doctor’s appointment’ to my to-do list.”). A growing list of built-in capabilities and third-party skills means that your Alexa device keeps improving the longer you own it.
We’ve seen digital assistants before, and the voice-activated ones weren’t really all that notable, until now. The Alexa and the Echo line of devices from Amazon (and the myriad other products from other partner companies) are by no means perfect, and it isn’t like you can hold a conversation with it the way you would with a friend or professor. But as far as machine intelligence has gone, in its role as a digital assistant, it is impressive.
It’s the hands-free, always-listening (in a good way, such as awaiting your commands, and that you can order to stop listening; and not the prying or spying type) device that we’ve always been waiting for, always promised to arrive any day now.
It continues to bring us closer to be able to issue commands to let it (or other smart devices it can work with) perform just about any duty you wish any time of the day.
It may still be a ways away from what you’d expect an artificial general intelligence (AGI) as expected in the technological Singularity of human-level intelligence (or better), but it’s among the closest we can come now, particularly at a consumer level.
And when you consider that it’s still really early in the game and there’s still plenty of room and time for development, you can appreciate the complexity and sophistication happening in the background, transparent to you, but otherwise notice the level of interaction that you derive and how it seems to constantly get better, incrementally or otherwise.
The Echo family and the individual products in it are of superlative quality. Alexa takes it to a whole new level. Because it’s constantly updated, its advances going forward will only be breathtaking.