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Amazon wants Alexa, its smart personal assistant, to become an integral part of your day-to-day living.
She can play music, set alarms, search Google, update you on the latest news, give you a weather forecast, control your smart home, and even order things from Amazon using nothing more than voice commands.
Sounds great. But is she really that “smart”? There’s no doubt voice-controlled assistants are the future, but is Alexa the solution?
Perhaps not. In this article, I’m going to argue Alexa is actually rather stupid.
You’re Talking to a Speaker
If you think talking to plants is daft, you’re in for a shock. There’s no getting around this, you’re having a conversation with an inanimate object. At least plants are alive.
Alexa is hardly the only culprit. Siri and Google Now use a similar approach and an increasing number of smart home gadgets rely on voice control.
Children being born into today’s hi-tech world might be more comfortable with the notion of talking to tech by the time they reach adulthood. However, for adults who’ve grown up in the pre-internet era, it feels ridiculous.
Yelling at your coffee table to find out information is both disconcerting and entirely unnatural. Want to know what the weather is like? Look out the window. Want to listen to music? Turn on the radio.
Yes, technology moves on. But until Amazon finds a way to make Alexa a lot more personal, it’s unlikely to catch on with the public at large.
Sell, Sell, Sell
Amazon tells us Alexa is all about making our lives easier. The information on Amazon’s website makes lots of reference to speed, ease-of-use, and integration.
It feels like Amazon is hiding something from us. Amazon doesn’t produce weather reports, own a search engine, or develop productivity apps. Amazon is a shop, it wants to sell us things.
It might be cynical, but it’s hard to escape the nagging feeling that Alexa is an elaborate way to make us buy more stuff. After all, the company is already inventive in this area. Drone deliveries, Prime subscriptions, groceries-on-demand, and even RFID-based supermarkets are all now a “thing”. All are meant to increase the volume of things you consume, by making it more convenient for you to consume.
Currently, Alexa’s shopping functionality is limited to Prime members who want to reorder products they’ve bought before. But if Alexa proves to be a hit, you can bet she’ll quickly become the front end for the Amazon store, ready to debit your credit card every time you open your mouth.
Don’t Call Your Daughter Alexa
Seriously, don’t. There’s nothing wrong with the name “Alexa” — it’s very pretty — but the way the technology’s voice recognition works will make your life a nightmare.
The Amazon Echo speaker, home of Alexa, is “always listening”. As soon as it hears the word “Alexa” it springs to life, ready to help. It needs to work in this way, a smart assistant wouldn’t be very useful if you had to turn it on every time you needed help. At that point, it’d just be a watered-down version of a smartphone.
But it could create problems.
You can see it now: “Alexa, darling, would you mind picking up some washing detergent from the store later?” Amazon will have it on your doorstep before your daughter has even left the house.
BBC journalist Dave Lee recently wrote a piece in which he criticized Google Now for being too impersonal. “When I use Google Home, I’m forced to address a corporation”, he argued. It’s a fair point, but unless you’ve got sadistic naming tendencies it’s not going to wreak the same amount of havoc.
Get Her a Hearing Aid
Alexa needs her ears cleaned. If you’ve spent any time interacting with her, you’ll be all too aware of this mind-numbing phrase: “Sorry, I didn’t understand the question I heard.” There are only so many times you can hear the same sorry-not-sorry riposte before you give up and sling Alexa through the nearest window.
If you want quick information, it’s frustrating and time-consuming. It’s faster to check your phone instead. Even if she thinks she understood the question, she often didn’t.
“Alexa, what’s the right way to Walmart?”
“The right way to spell Walmart is W-A-L-M-A-R-T.”
Sound familiar? Stick with Google Maps.
Errors Have Consequences
Her shoddy hearing might give you a laugh, but it if starts to have serious consequences on your personal or professional life, it won’t be so funny.
For example, Amazon heavily promotes Alexa’s integration with apps like Uber and Just Eat. But what happens when the delivery driver brings “Chicken and Cashew Nuts” to your door instead of “Chicken Chow Mein”? Who’s out of pocket? You can be sure the restaurant won’t care, and good luck with trying to get a refund from Amazon directly.
And what about adding events to your calendar? It’s hard to know how sympathetic your boss will be if you’re 12 hours late for a meeting because Alexa logged it at 8 PM rather than 8 AM.
They might be isolated incidents, but they do happen. And until Alexa improves significantly, they will continue to happen.
Give Alexa a Pink Slip
Take responsibility for your own life. Are you really that lazy that you’re prepared to let an all-seeing, all-knowing corporation into your front room just to save you a few seconds?
It would be different if Alexa could reliably do all your tax returns or mow the lawn. They’re jobs that take considerable time and effort. But asking her to check the sports scores for me? No thanks.
Give Alexa a pink slip, she won’t hold it against you, I promise.
Do you use Alexa? Do you find her useful or useless? You can leave your experiences and opinions in the comments below.
Image Credit: Yeexin Richelle via Shutterstock.com