I'm misunderstood, especially on days like today. The first rains of September have left me cold, something that seems to confuse in a big way Alexa and my Amazon Echo Dot . It is certainly frustrating. Much of my morning routine turns unconsciously around my “conversations” with this gadget, and today seems not to understand me.
Alexa in our daily routine
Let me explain. At home we have two Echo Dots one in the bedroom, the other next to the kitchen. Every morning, Alexa wakes us up with Radiohead's “No Surprises” (yes, existential irony does not escape us); my first words of the day (“Alexa, stop”) are directed to a robot. This morning, my cazalla voice seemed not to be detected by the Echo, who continued singing happily verses of Thom Yorke until he decided to heed the non-hoarse voice of my wife.
The thing continued the rest of the morning. After showering, I always ask Alexa what time is waiting for us today while I look at what I have clean in the closet, to see if I put on a sweater and I have to take the umbrella. This morning, the Echo answered me by reading the Wikipedia entry of Max Webber, because “weather” and “Webber” are easy to confuse if you are a robot.
During the breakfast, I had to ask Alexa three times to put NPR while reading the newspaper (insisting on putting a Philadelphia punk station instead of the news), and then decided to repeat a podcast we had heard yesterday instead of tuning in to Catalunya Radio when I gave my daughter breakfast. The only thing that he understood the first was when I asked him if there was traffic to go to work (there is always) and what was on the agenda in the office (a couple of meetings), because Alexa to the time to give you bad news always answers the first.
Those are the days when I'm like this, cold, when I realize how much we use our Echo Dot and Alexa. The two little knickknacks are there, each one in their corner, waiting, and we ask them questions constantly; Alexa is almost always busy.
The morning routine is a good example, but the Echo also works in the afternoon. Since we have a small daughter and we do not want to have the television on at all hours, the first thing my wife does when she gets home is, almost invariably, to ask Alexa to play something from Spotify.
The sound of the first generation Echo is pretty horrendous but there's something for the Bluetooth speakers we have at home; since we have Alexa, there is almost always background music. During dinner, it is time for podcasts, which have taken over the radio and TV almost completely. Often, while we clean the kitchen, we use Alexa to play a round of “Jeopardy” to pass the time, or we ask about what time it will be Saturday while we make plans for the weekend.
Alexa and the accents
Go ahead, Alexa does not always understand me quite well . Although I have been living in the United States for more than a decade, I still speak English with a Catalan accent, which I suppose is not very similar to the Mexican or Puerto Rican accent that Amazon engineers should have in mind for non-native speakers. Although Alexa understands most simple commands the first time, the poor woman often makes a mess when I ask her something a bit complicated or ask her for a podcast with an unusual name.
My requests to listen to “The Rewatchables” and “Lovett or Leave It” always end up generating hilarious mistakes, especially for my wife, who still finds it funny that neither robots nor waiters (although that's another story) understand my accent. It will be fun to see how they solve this problem with the accents when they have Spanish users asking to listen to “Brus Esprinstin” or “Arcaid Fair” with an accent like that half done.
Things that do not quite work
Apart from time, news, music and podcast, however, there are several functions that we do not use too much. In theory, Alexa can be used as an intercom or to make calls with the mobile, either to another phone, or to another person who has Alexa. In practice, the Amazon app for both Android (including the FireOS of their own tablets) and iOS is pretty sloppy and we've never managed to make it work consistently.
In a more frustrating way, once you have everything set up, the system is still a bit of a failure, since you either do not understand the first order, or have forgotten that you have a phone, or Bluetooth is on the move and does not know what to connect to, so ends up being faster to use the mobile directly .
Shopping via Alexa at the beginning is funny (and more so for a family of avid Amazon Prime buyers like ours), but you soon realize that having a conversation with a stubborn robot is not the most efficient way to choose products in an online store.
Although Alexa understands most simple commands the first time, the poor woman often makes a mess when I ask her something a bit complicated or ask her for a podcast with an unusual name.
In general, Alexa is always easy to operate, except when you have to use the associated app on your phone or tablet to do anything. The software is often awkward, inconsistent and does not synchronize well with the gadgets you have on the network, The options menu is gibberish. Amazon, in addition, has the irritating habit of updating the application but not the manuals on its website; for one season this year, menus on iOS and Android had different options, and the web pointed to menus that did not exist.
Amazon also adds new features without warning from time to time, announces things and does not put them into service until several weeks later, or launches things that look like this beta permanently. The possibility of using Amazon tablets as “agents” of Alexa is a good example; months after its implementation, our Fire HD8 responds more or less when it feels like it. When it starts to work, it often ends up “fighting” with the Echo Dot that is nearby, generating a cacophony of confusing answers.
There is nothing or almost nothing in the functionality of these gadgets that you can not do with a mobile phone or a laptop connected to a couple of good speakers.
Other options have not even been tested. Echo can connect with a Fire TV or Fire Stick to control your TV via voice. As for boxes for streaming, however, I have always preferred the Roku because they are cheaper, simple and work with everything (read: YouTube works on them). Since I did not want at all to fight with the Alexa app to configure anything on television we have not gone through Amazon.
On smart home features, such as controlling lights, alarms, microwaves, washing machines and so on, I've never quite understood why screaming at the dishwasher is more efficient than pressing a couple of buttons, so I have not even bothered. This winter, if I'm in the mood, maybe end up installing a Nest or something similar to control the heating, since the thermostat that we have now I can not schedule for hours. I guess Alexa will be fine then to complain that I'm hot and that my wife complains that she's cold, which is what we do all winter.
An invisible technology (in the best sense)
In addition, I can not say that Alexa has “changed my life”, or at least not to the point of making my days completely different today than they used to be. The use we give the Echo is something similar to a smart radio that you can ask almost any program you can think of, ask if it's cold and what time does Barça play on Sunday. There is nothing or almost nothing in the functionality of these gadgets that you can not do with a mobile phone or a laptop connected to a couple of good speakers. Often, either of these two alternatives will be less frustrating than interacting with a mechanical voice that refuses to understand something as basic as “play songs by Camilo Sesto on Spotify” when you need it most.
Since Alexa is at home we hear much more music and many more podcasts, we do not forget the umbrella when it rains, and we buy, foolishly, many more nonsense by Amazon, because everything is ridiculously easy to use
charm, and the genius of Echo and Alexa (and the rest of voice attendants), however, is that does not require you to pay attention . When they work well (something that, even with my peculiar accent, they do 90% of the time), they allow you to ask for information, news or distractions while doing other things without interrupting or distracting you. Alexa tells me what time it will take while I look at what I have in the closet, without having to look for the phone and look at the screen. It allows me to put a radio station or a podcast without having to open Spotify, type and search it. When you buy something with the Echo, it's almost magical; your robot is responsible for sending something home without you having to do anything.
The result is that, although nothing that I do with the Echo is “new” to practice we are using those functions a lot more often . Since Alexa is at home we hear much more music and many more podcasts, we do not forget the umbrella when it rains, and buy, foolishly, many more nonsense by Amazon, because everything is ridiculously easy to use. It is technology applied to make your life easier, which is basically the technology that you end up appreciating more.
Alexa, strictly, is useless. When I'm cold and ignore me, however, I realize that part of my day is almost as much as the phone, the car or any other device you have on hand. No, I do not need Alexa. But it is very nice to have her at home.
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