Back in 1966 we watched Captain Kirk chat with Mr. Spock through his Starfleet issue flip phone communicator. Such technology was so fantastic back then that that most people assumed we’d have to wait until 2265 for personal wireless communications. Little did we know that in 1996, just a mere 30 years later, Motorola would release the StarTAC flip-phone (StarTAC, StarTrek, hmm). Although it had buttons instead of a tuning dial, it was essentially the same design and functionality as those Starfleet Communicators.
Despite the futuristic awesomeness of the flip-phone, most people back in 1996 didn’t see much value in wireless phones. Why do we need them? Our trusty old Ma Bell phone works just fine! People could not imagine that soon they’d spend a huge part of their day with their head bent over their cell phones. And so it is with most every new innovation. At first no one can imagine why they’d want that new gadget – even if only a few years it would be the one thing they’d take along if stranded on a desert island.
And here we are again. Now we have the Echo from Amazon. It is our new StarTAC flip-phone. Remember how the Enterprise computer spoke with Kirk wherever he happened to be? Echo is our own personal Enterprise computer. It is Tony Stark’s Jarvis – before getting incarnated as Vision. It is Gideon, the AI of the Waverider from Legends of Tomorrow. Well the start of Jarvis and Gideon at least. Most people don’t see it as anything more than a novelty. But today it’s already immensely useful. Tomorrow it’ll be as indispensable to our households as electricity.
The Echo is a simple device, elegantly simple. It is a small cylinder you place centrally in your house, plug it in, let it connect to your WIFI, and start talking to it. The Echo is mostly speaker, and a pretty good one. I have always been a hardcore audiophile and I’m happy enough with the quality. The rest of it is just a WIFI device that communicates with a very pleasant and smart woman named Alexa whom I assume works 24/7 at Amazon just to talk to me. Just ask Alexa something, anything, and she’ll respond in her reassuringly competent voice with helpful information. Alexa isn’t quite “Her” but she’s pretty insightful.
Alexa, what time is it?
Alexa, spell consensus.
Alexa, what is the population of Uruguay?
Alexa, what’s in the news today?
Alexa, play Enchanted by Taylor Swift.
Alexa, read about Deadpool on Wikipedia.
Alexa, wake me at 8 A.M.
Alexa, set a timer for 15 minutes.
Alexa, put peanut butter cookies on my shopping list.
Alexa, what’s another word for amazing?
Alexa, why is the sky blue?
Alexa, when was Kennedy president?
Alexa, who is the Speaker of the House?
Alexa, play Ratatat Radio on Pandora.
Alexa, what is 34 + 75 + 26?
Alexa, what’s on my calendar tomorrow?
Alexa, what was Mark Twain’s real name?
Alexa, continue reading Night Without End by Alistair MacLean.
I know, I know, big deal. I tried Siri. She lost her attraction pretty quickly. Don’t talk to her much anymore. Have flirted with Cortana too I guess. Don’t talk to her that at all. I could look up any of those questions just as quickly on my phone. I’m pretty good with my thumbs. Voice is just a novelty gimmick with little real value.
How wrong you are. The big deal here is not what it does but how it does it. Sure, you could stop what you’re doing, get your phone, find an app, select some options, type in some stuff, and read an answer. Or, you could just conversationally mumble “Alexa, how many tablespoons in an ounce” from the kitchen while you continue to stir your batter. While you’re tying your shoes in the morning you can just ask “Alexa, will it rain today?” You don’t need to make a mental note to listen to “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” after you finish your soak in the tub. Just ask Alexa to play it for you.
Even in its current young form, Alexa is incredibly empowering. I find myself asking tons of questions and making many more casual requests than I would have if I had to go to my computer or my phone. It deeply enriches my life with a world of information not at my fingertips, but simply “in the air” of my house.
Alexa is has access to the Internet but it is also essentially a platform for third party applications. Other third parties can write Alexa “skills” to do pretty much anything. Right now, most skills are pretty silly. Why people write take the time to write skills to tell jokes or play random dog barks is beyond me. But the potential for far more serious stuff is there and they will come in the near future. Alexa and successors like it will continue to get more and more powerful. Soon you will be able to ask them questions like “what percentage of males under 35 voted for Donald Trump in North Carolina as compared to females in the same age group?” Through 3rd party skills you’ll be able to give directions like “let my uncle Joe into the house when he arrives today.” The possibilities extend far beyond my imagination.
But you don’t need to wait for another 20 years or even another 10 years. Alexa can enrich your life in subtle but dramatic ways right now. You can already free yourself from your “mobile” device in liberating ways with an even more intimate connection to the world. Do I have an ulterior motive in trying to get you to buy an Echo? Damn right I do. Every Echo that you purchase pulls those amazing new killer skills out of the distant future and into my immediate future.
Alexa, where is the nearest coconut on this desert island?