Alexa Echo, Home Brain

DeviceHeroImgWhen the first “micro-computer,” the MITS Altair 8800, was advertised in Popular Electronics in 1975, one of the imagined uses for it was “brain for a robot.” At the time, one had to be comfortable with electronics circuitry and soldering irons to contemplate how the device, with no display and only toggle switches for input (and blinking lights for output), could control other machinery, let alone a robot (which by the way you would also have to build yourself). Here we are 40 years later, and we still need a brain for a robot, something to control the increasingly connected devices in our homes. Amazon’s new Echo is a first look at how this will work, and I have to say it’s a lot of fun.

Altair Uses 2The pleasant surprise of setting up the Echo is that it works really well right away (provided you have Amazon Prime). I tried “Alexa, play the Grateful Dead,” and in an instant, I no longer had to worry about all those concert tapes I’ve never gotten around to digitizing. I was just grooving. Her voice is soft and more human-like than Siri’s, and more importantly, her cadence is just about right. She still needs to learn that humans are imperfect speakers–we hem and haw and stutter, and she’ll need to get better at being patient as we struggle to state our commands. She is pretty good at this already, but needs improvement.

But the most exciting thing about Echo is the view it gives of a new product category–brain for our smart (smartening) houses. Echo is already connected to IFTTT, to Belkin’s Wemo devices, and to Philips Hue lighting. It is easy to imagine Echo (or something like it) being the device that controls our internet-connected houses. “Alexa, start my car for me” is not that far away.

The other aspect that is quite successful is the voice interface–not because it’s perfect, but because it’s much more natural in a social setting. When we turn from others in our group to interact with our screens, it is inherently anti-social. But speaking in a group, even if to a computer, feels much more social and natural. The device becomes more a part of the conversation than a distraction or an ignoring of it.

I’ve been in lots of professional meetings lately where the anticipated Echo was treated as something of a joke. I don’t think we’ll be laughing for very long, not after more of us have had a chance to try it out. More on this soon I am sure.