Me: “Alexa, where does your name come from?”
Alexa: “My name ‘Alexa’ comes from the Library of Alexandria, which stored the knowledge of the ancient world.”
I wouldn’t say my new Amazon Echo is quite as full of knowledge as it claims, but I am having fun asking it questions and listening to its jokes. Alexa: “I would tell a fart joke, but I’m afraid it would bomb.” Smart speakers seem to be all the rage. Everyone I know is getting one for Christmas and getting me one for Christmas! If you also got one for Christmas, or are thinking about getting your significant other one for Valentine’s Day, this might be helpful.
Smart speakers aren’t insanely expensive, but they aren’t cheap either. You can’t just go out and buy one on a whim, unless you’re Jeff Bezos. A smart speaker isn’t useful to everyone (if you just want a speaker to tell you funny jokes, you need not read on because the Echo is for you), so you should ask yourself some relevant questions before buying your own.
What do these smart speakers actually do? Who wants me to have this talking cylinder in my home and why? Who is listening through that speaker? Is this going to make me a worthless, lazy slob who can’t do anything for himself?
Why don’t we ask Alexa ourselves?
Me: “Alexa, are you worth the money I spent on you?”
Alexa: “Sorry, I don’t know that.”
So much for all that ancient knowledge stuff she bragged about.
Me: “Alexa, How rich is Jeff Bezos?”
Alexa: “Jeff Bezos’ net worth is 93 billion one hundred million dollars.”
That’s better, at least she can Google stuff.
Alexa can tell you readily available facts on the internet. She can make to-do lists for you. She can tell you the weather in Rome. She can call you an Uber. And she can set a timer while you’re cooking or while you’re taking a shower and the hot water only lasts for exactly three minutes. She can turn the lights off in your home, but only if you buy compatible smart home devices. A smart speaker can do a lot of things that you can easily do yourself with your smartphone, but you won’t have to dig through the couch cushions to find your phone. You can just say “Alexa, play LCD Soundsystem,” and she’ll respond, “Playing Sound System by The Clash.” And that’s better than trying to find your phone, right?
Me: “Alexa, can you do my laundry?”
Alexa: “Sorry, I don’t know that one.”
Smart speakers haven’t yet developed that killer application, the one that will make everyone have to buy the speaker just because they need to have that one capability (think of an app that you can only get on a specific computer so you have to buy that computer). The smart speakers haven’t gotten there yet. Right now, they can be helpful, but aren’t essential for any reason in particular. It’s cool they can turn on your lights but most people don’t want or need that yet: that’s not a problem for the developers. Amazon, Google, Apple, Microsoft and Samsung aren’t trying to make people think they need the speakers yet. They’re letting consumers build trust with the machines for what will come later.
Once you trust your artificially intelligent speaker, you’ll probably let it control your basic needs and possibly some of your appliances around the house (you don’t hire a house servant before a thorough background check, right?). When the technology arrives and you aren’t too afraid of the evil computer burning your house down, Alexa will turn the oven on for you and make you coffee. And, in this end-to-end closed system world that Steve Jobs created, your Amazon speaker will only connect to a compatible Amazon coffee maker.
Me: “Alexa, what can the Google Home do?”
Alexa: “Here’s something I found on Wikipedia: In October 2017 Google announced two additions to the product lineup, the Google Home Mini and the Google Home Max.”
Classic move going to Wikipedia for information about your competitors, Alexa. You probably changed the founder of Google to Blake Bortles while you were there.
What’s the difference between different smart speakers coming out of all these different companies? For me, it seems to be your preference on what name you want to say constantly. Or which voice you think is the prettiest for the time when computers become capable of love. The practical differences aren’t drastic. Google Home is better at conversation, it seems, and the Echo can buy stuff on Amazon and track your packages. But, if these tech companies succeed in connecting everything in your home, the smart speaker you buy now might influence what sort of connecting devices you will inevitably buy later as they’re introduced. If you’ve already bought the Echo and the Amazon Smart Plugs, it might be too late to switch brands when Google comes out with its real-life, voice-controlled Jetsons Easy-Bake oven.
Me: “Alexa, are you always listening to me?”
Alexa: “I only send audio back to Amazon when I hear you say the wake word. For more information, and to view Amazon’s privacy notice, visit the help section of your Amazon app.”
No, smart speakers aren’t recording everything you say. The Echo will only record for a brief time after you summon it with the wake word “Alexa.” It does send what you say after that to Amazon’s servers, which has the police itching to get their hands on murder recordings like a Black Mirror episode. However, the smart speaker is only recording if you want it to, meaning only for a few seconds after you say “Alexa” or “OK Google” or “Hey Siri.” Recording any more would be an extreme invasion of privacy, and developers say they’re abiding by that rule. Also, you can always see your conversations with Alexa in a sort of feed in the Alexa app, and any recording should show up there.
If you want a Google Home to do all your chores, the technology isn’t quite there yet. If you’re afraid Alexa will record everything in your house, that shouldn’t stop you from buying one because it won’t. Overall, these smart speakers won’t do much for you, but that’s not really the point. They’re meant to groom us for the inevitable future where computers and robots will coexist.
Me: “Alexa, are you getting smarter?”
Alexa: “I’m learning how to be more helpful to as many people as possible.”
Hopefully that means helpful like C-3PO from Star Wars and not Roy Batty from Blade Runner.
Opinions expressed in The Nevada Sagebrush are solely those of the author and do not necessarily express the views of The Sagebrush or of its staff. Ryan Suppe studies journalism and philosophy. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @salsuppe