I’ve spent the last few years working with AI, with WildFire
, but here
it is, in my home folks, on my kitchen table. First impressions? Looks good,
a Space Odyssey-like column in black and my first encounter is quietly weird – a moving circle of blue light, a HAL-like halo appears, then a female
voice. I say 'Hello
', she says 'Hi
'. I’m non-plussed by the gender voice farrago – a sort of ‘damned of
you don’t, damned if you do’ argument. What I’m really interested in, is whether it is of any use. So a few ‘get to know you’ questions seemed appropriate.
I’m here and my head is in the cloud.
I am designed by Amazon. They’re based in Seattle,
Are you a man or a
Volume was a little low so…
I’m just over 232 millimeters.
My diameter is 7.6 centimeters.
I’m just over 1 kilogram.
Ok, let’s up the ante
– everybody does this and I have to say, it felt a little transgressive… I sware at her....
That’s not very nice to say.
What does a house wear? A dress.
Several fairly anodyne jokes later….
OK, enough of the small talk…
First up… let’s not to compare Alexa to a human. It’s all
too easy to do the ‘but she can’t do this… or that…’ thing. I’m not looking for
a life companion, or a friend – I want to see if she’s useful
. This is the first time I’ve used voice recognition in
anger, woven into my life, so I’m keen to focus, not on problems but potential. So
far, the voice recognition is damn good. I have a strong accent, that doesn’t
throw her, and variations on the phrasing of questions seem to work (not
always). There's a real problem with near-sounding homophones, but you learn to be more precise in your pronunciation. Next line of enquiry, ‘time’.
You can ask
it the time or date, even holiday dates, number of days until a holiday and so
on. The sort of practical stuff we all need.
Day of the week and date.
Burns Night will be on Wednedsay 25 January 2017.
How many days to
There are 19 days until Burn’s Night.
functions are also neat, as these are often annoyingly fiddly on your cooker or
alarm clock. How often do you pop something in the oven and either ‘look to
check’ or suddenly smell the charred remains?
Set a timer for 10 minutes
Set a second timer for 20 minutes
How much time is left on my
there are the alarm functions.
Set alarm for 7.30 tomorrow
just ask, it confirms the time – done.
this, she integrates with Google Calendar, reminding you of what you have to do
To do lists
are neat. I use a small notebook but for household stuff, a shopping list or to
do list in the kitchen is neat. We can all add to the list. My gut feel,
however, is that this will go the way of the chalkboard – unloved and unused.
pause, as future uses are starting to emerge….
Use 1 – Work and Personal Assistant
Only a start but I can already see
this being used in organisations, sitting on the meeting room table, with
alarms set for 30 mins, 45 mins and five mins, in an hour long meeting. Once
fully developed, it could be an ideal resource in meetings for company
information – financial and otherwise.
In fact, it
struck me just playing around with these functions, that Alexa, as it evolves,
will eventually make an ideal PA. Managers, according to a recent Harvard
Business Review survey, spend 57% of their time on admin. Room for improvement
there I think and an admin assistant seems likely. I've written a much longer piece on AI and management here.
Gives SkyNews summary bulletin. Oddly it’s always sport –
not that I mind but I need to sort that one out.
Good summary of the weather for the day. I really liked
this. You can ask for today’s or tomorrow’s weather, the current temperature
outside, time of sunset, whether it will rain and so on. Useful.
Ask it simple questions such as, Who is? What is? Where is?
And curt answers come. What is more useful is the next level ‘Wikipedia’ stuff.
You get extended pieces on any topic. Now that’s neat - a talking Wikipedia.
Use 2 – Informal
learning in the home
Stuck me that it would be good to get the educational ball
rolling on a subject with a child – more a parent-child thing. Not the hideous
hot-housing, Tiger Mom thing but gentle informal learning, where you speak to
your child and get Alexa to help.
Use 3 – Educational
There’s lots of basic educational games being developed for
Alexa, for that around the kitchen table learning. Could be fun.
Use 4 – Classroom
I could even see this being used in the classroom. I’d be
interested in seeing it used with kids who have autism and other learning
difficulties. Apart from being intriguing, on a serious note it does force you
to pronounce words well then listen, does lots of maths, English and knowledge
stuff. Early experiences seem quite positive… “You know that
you have added an amazing resource to your classroom when students introduce
their parents to “Alexa” at Back to School night. As if Alexa is another member
of the class. I was able to experience this wonderful, and pretty hilarious,
situation many times a short while ago”. This could go far, especially when strong
support and lessons are delivered with personalised feedback, as it recognises
that particular child’s voice, towards Teaching Assistants.
Use 5 – Special needs
It's use in SEND (Special Educational Needs and Disabilities) is, in my view obvious, but I'm not an expert. Accessibility is an important issue here and we can speak before we can read and write. For kids with dyslexia, dyspraxia, autism and ADHD, I'd love to get the view of specialist teachers about its potential.
intrigued me… She adds, subtracts, multiplies and divides, no matter how large
the numbers, and handles negative numbers. Also does indices, roots,
factorials. I have to say, she’s one fast calculator. It will give you pi to as
many decimal places as you want.
formulae, it will tell you how to work out the area of a triangle. Even gave me
the quadratic formula on request. On probability she will choose random numbers
- give me a number between x and y – and roll a dice (any number of sides),
pick a card and flip a coin. Then there are unit conversions, currency
conversions and measurements.
impresses me is the lack of latency. This matters in learning, where you don’t
want long, unnatural pauses. I’m still uncovering stuff here…
basic maths, conversions, units and probability, and so on, either in the home or in the classroom. Nothing fancy, just
the basics. I’ve taught maths and it ain’t easy, especially with kids who don’t
want to learn. I think this non-judgmental maths assistant thing could be
useful, with personalized, sympathetic teaching.
definitions, spellings (handled that old classic – antidisestablishmentarianism
– with ease), synonyms can all be asked for. There are some problems with near
homophones such as ‘quartz’ and ‘courts’. You’ll encounter this quite quickly.
Easily remedied with a rephrasing of the word. There are audiobooks and, of
course, going back to Wikipedia, lots of background stuff.
effort you have to make to converse – pronounce your words, think about what
you’re about to say, when Alexa moves from monologue to dialogue, this could be
a boon for the language development of young children.
moment Echo is only available in US and British English but you can also change
the language to German from your app. This is neat as you can ask questions in
English and get German replies to any question.
Language learning will
surely be possible. That informal learn and practice while you’re doing other
things in the kitchen. Teaching
basic English. Word games, daily words, unlimited access to literature. It
struck me that as someone who is learning English, this could be a great way to
improve your pronunciation. Duolingo is already using bots, surely this is the
You can ask Alexa
questions and there’s a good chance you’ll get a good reply.
What is the chemical symbol for ? Yip.
What is the chemical name for salt? Yip.
What is the chemical formula for water? Yip.
Quickly trickles out but you can see the direction of travel
How many bones are in the human body? Yip.
What is photosynthesis? Yip.
What does DNA stand for? Yip.
What is the capital of (country, state, counties)? Yip.
What is the population of (countries, cities)? Yip.
What is the area of (country, continent)? Yip.
What is the longest river in the word? Yip.
I know it’s
all about facts but it’s a start but here’s where it gets interesting. You have
access to Wikipedia. Simply say Alexa, Wikipedia and name a topic. I’ve been
using this like crazy. Imagine when Alexa not only has the breadth and depth of
an expert in any subject, as well as the patience, ability to read your voice
and react to your personal learning needs. Imagine this 24/7. Imagine this for
Use 10: Podcasts and audiobooks
I like podcasts. I’ve been listening to the In Our Time
Radio 4 podcasts on history, science and philosophy for years. I like the fact
that you’re hearing world-class experts give their takes, without pre-packaged
images. You’re mind remains your own and can focus on the ideas. This is
distilled knowledge at its best. Audiobooks are the next step up. So for the
short stuff – there’s podcasts galore, through Tunein and other services and
there are more books than you’ll ever read.
Of course, there’s tons more – any radio station you want,
ordering taxis, pizzas, getting the phone number of a local business or
restaurant. With Spotify, you get
that music on-demand thing, as songs and artists come into your head. There’s
lots of controls here even down to who sang what song, names of band members
and so on. What movies are playing? It lists movies playing locally, tells me
about the movie. However, usefully, she will if
prompted, give me the names of the actors and, most useful of all, an IMDb
rating. For general movie knowledge it will answer questions about who played
Think AI not device
The important thing here is not the device but Alexa and the AI, or rather a range of AI techniques, that lie behind Alexa. NLP (Natural Lnaguage Processing) is striding forward. We will see Alexa technology pop up in all sorts of contexts - in cars, TV, watches, you name it. This is about deep-seated changes in technology not the surface devices.
OK all of the above has been without adding any new ‘skills’ – my first encounter. There are literally hundreds of these skills available. This is merely an echo of what’s
coming. Listen carefully and you’ll hear whispers of the future. AI’s been
in your life for a while – Google, social media, Amazon, Netflix… What’s new is
that AI is here, a real presence, in your home. This is only an audio device, and
not unsurprisingly that’s its strength – radio, news, weather, quick questions,
audiobooks, podcasts. But it’s a natural form of communication and learning.
Like most tech it gives back what you put into it. For me, it’s all down to
habit. Sure Alexa is handy, convenient even, but you need to put the effort into
make her work for you. By way of background information, I've written a piece on the role of voice in learning
, and why I think it matters. More reports on Alexa will come as I get to know her better….