I’m very much sold on the concept of voice-driven interfaces for the web. And I know that Amazon Echo (often called Alexa) is a great first foray into how we normal humans (I’m pretending to be normal – shush!) will start getting into this world. But now that I’m totally sold on the idea? Alexa – get smarter now, please.
It’s All An Illusion – That’s the First Problem
Here’s the real problem. We think Alexa is Jarvis. ( You know who Jarvis is, Right?) It’s not like that. Alexa isn’t really “smart.” She’s just trained rather well to listen to our requests, and several combinations of our words key pre-programmed responses. I know this. You know this. But it’s SO easy to forget. We want her to be smart. Wait. Her. It’s a female voice interface. But it’s not really a “her,” is it?
Our brains love/want/need to anthropomorphize everything. (Translation: we see faces in the grills of cars. We treat pets like little furry humans.) We need Alexa to be a her. (Yes, I know about Her.) And we’d love/want/need her to be smart. I need her to be smart.
What Alexa Does for Me
Amazon Echo is a voice interface. I can say things like, “Alexa, set a timer for 6 minutes” and that reminds me to check on the boiling water that I’ll turn into coffee. I can say, “Alexa, buy more batteries,” and she’ll order me this exact package of batteries, because that’s the only one I ever order. I can say, “Alexa, what’s the weather for tomorrow” and she’ll read that to me.
I use her MOST often as a timer and alarm. I use her second most for reading my books to me, playing my audiobooks, playing songs from Spotify. I use her to order things I’m missing.
What I Wish She’d Do Better
Alexa needs to be just a hair more self-aware for one thing. I should be able to say, “Alexa, tell me which skills I have installed” instead of digging for my phone and checking there. That’s pretty basic. I’m saying, “Alexa, read me a list,” if you get right down to it. Why ISN’T this already do-able?
Alexa needs to remember. Just like the battery trick. I say “batteries,” and she knows I mean Duracell Procell AA batteries.” Why can’t she do that with other things? If she knows I say “next” every time a slow Metallica song comes on, why not just NEVER play me those songs? (This is simple, but think about it in non-music terms.)
(This isn’t her fault but) Alexa needs to integrate to more things. Let’s be honest. She’s built for one thing: sell more Amazon. But if we’re going to make her the centerpiece of the home voice experience, she needs to connect and push commands and responses back and forth from more things.
Alexa needs Google Search. I get it. War. You’re at war. But Bing? Ugh. I like a LOT of things Microsoft does. But not Bing. We don’t have to talk about this.
Alexa needs to go with me. Again, the use case for this device is that she sits in my home and lets me order bon bons (or Pizza Hut, which is nuts!). But I need her in the car. I need her in hotels all across the world. I need that steady state. And I think it’s what we’ll all want.
Alexa isn’t Siri (And That’s Good)
I want to say also that it’s great that Alexa isn’t Siri. My point that she has to go with me when I travel might accidentally make you think, “Oh, but Siri does that.” She’s not the same thing. Siri was one of the first, but she’s not that great. And don’t even talk about Cortana. There are many voice interfaces out there. At present, Alexa’s the one closest to the mark. I’d say OK Google (because they didn’t even give it a name) is pretty decent, but will never have the same place of pride as Alexa for the same reason many Google projects fail – they forget that we love humanity and anthropomorphism.
There’s a Lot To This
I might seem like a griping consumer, and I am. But I’m also someone who sees a lot of ways that tools LIKE Alexa are going to become core to our world because pushing our thumbs against glass is only ONE way to connect. There are more coming. And it’s not just eyeball VR stuff. We’re heading somewhere. I just want to help us get there.