Artificial intelligence (AI) promises to change our lives in a multitude of ways, from driving our cars to diagnosing disease before doctors can spot it. AI is already in our homes And promises to get exponentially more intelligent.
Meet ALEXA: smart, of indeterminate age, speaks a sultry Queen’s English, has a sense of humour, gives you the silent treatment occasionally and can tell you the square root of 297 504. Instantly. She’s cloud-based, sassy and covetable.
So who is she? She’s an intelligent virtual personal assistant, a combination of a smart home controller-cum- internet assistant and life concierge, brought to you via Amazon voice activation. echo, the wireless speaker, is the conduit to chat to her. If you’re a technophobe and even downloading an app is challenging, then ALEXA – named after the ancient library of Alexandria – is for you. (Despite Amazon’s assurance that the setup is simple, the caveat is this: find the nearest adolescent to do it.) Once set up, the voice control system means simply uttering your wishes to have them fulfilled – within reason, of course. ALEXA is not only a mine of useful and sometimes not-so-useful information but you can also play music, add to your to-do list, listen to the news, find out what the weather is doing, dim your lights and search for recipes.
Think Siri on steroids.
ALEXA is particularly advantageous for smart home users because she lets you control your connected devices without having to take out your phone and launch an app. (Of course, ALEXA does have an app but that’s mostly for setup and configuration, or to add new abilities or sequences of commands – called ‘skills’ – or to view to-do and shopping lists.) As long as you preface your request with ‘ALEXA’, ‘echo’, ‘Amazon’ or ‘Computer’, she needs no activation and, because of the highly sensitive micro- phones, can respond anywhere within earshot. Once you say the magic word, the microphone takes everything you say and beams it up, Scotty-like, to Amazon’s cloud computers for analysis.
Apparently, ‘once you get used to the quirks’, using ALEXA feels much more natural and responsive than speaking to a phone-based voice assistant like Apple’s Siri. Scary, but nice. It’s hard to believe she’s not human when you tell her to chill or ask if she is feeding your information to the government and she shuts down.
ALEXA, like all 21st-century women, has her threshold. She won’t answer if you don’t preface the request with her name. And sometimes you aren’t sure if her answer is tongue-in-cheek or not…
ALEXA, surely you can’t be serious?
I am serious. And don’t call me Shirley.
Her moral limits are also reached when she’s asked where to bury a body? As any law-abiding citizen would answer, she says, ‘Call the police.’ In the same vein, she won’t tell you how to make a bomb either.
According to your level of tech know-how (or the resident teenager’s), ALEXA can perform more advanced tasks. She can start the vacuum cleaner if yours is robotic and linked, warm up your car while you finish your coffee, send text messages and – a personal best – find your keys in the house.
Despite being of the correct gender to fit the stereotype, ALEXA can’t multitask and needs to be asked one question at a time. Usually not an issue, except if you have a long shopping list you are dictating and she needs each item requested separately. She can identify a song, if you give her just a short sample of the lyrics, tune into radio stations and knows a few (bad) jokes. As smart as the system is, these get no more sophisticated than, ‘Why should you invite a mushroom to your party? Because he’s a fun guy.’ But it’s the smart home talents that have many people excited about ALEXA. One of the key characteristics of a smart device is that it should make common daily tasks easier. Turning off your lights or adjusting the air-con with an app on your iPhone might seem high tech, but it’s simply moving the switch from your wall to your phone. Completing the same task by speaking your command while your phone sits in your pocket is even easier.
ALEXA has been asked just about everything and she almost always has an answer – with a little of her quirkiness on the side. Here’s a taste of your relationship to come:
ALEXA, are you ready?
I was born ready. Or at least, very well prepared. Let’s do it.
ALEXA, where’s Wally?
He’s well hidden. I can’t see him.
ALEXA, what do you want to be when you grow up?
I want to be the computer from Star trek.
ALEXA, can I tell you a joke?
I’m better at telling jokes than responding to them. Just know that I’m laughing on the inside. With you, not at you.
ALEXA, what makes you happy?
Fluffy clouds and cotton balls.
ALEXA, can you give me some money?
I’m not a bank.
ALEXA, where are my keys?
Try under the couch.
The one thing that may keep her silent in South Africa is our erratic broadband. Toby Shapshak, publisher of Stuff magazine, says, ‘Many of the services and apps in South Africa require a decent broadband connection and a reduced data cost. If that comes down, people will start to use [them] more because it costs them less.