Waracle Mobile App Developers, Scotland, UK

Alexa, are you listening to me?

By Sharon Dickie, Sales & Marketing Director | 22nd January 2018

“Hi I’m here, I start listening when I hear the wake word.” she responds.  What a great start to the day.  Already Alexa is paying more attention to me than the little people in my household.

With all the talk about voice (excuse the pun) I’ve been considering how Alexa has changed our household and where, in this small corner of the world, voice could go.   How much will Alexa be able to manage my house? Already her ability to listen and respond to requests far exceeds that of my children so although she hasn’t yet been able to action my frantic morning commands to ‘put on your shoes’ or ‘brush your teeth’ however she does respond, she’s always there.  With seven directional mics she’s already ahead  of us with listening.  At Waracle mobile app development we’re key advocates of voice and see it slotting in as one of the many digital products that will continue to evolve how we live with technology.  

Early Alexa

Like most households we started out with one Amazon Echo and for a few weeks continually asked about the weather, played music (this is when we learnt a lot about Spotify not having parental controls but that’s a whole other story) and of course asked Alexa for jokes.   My interest was lukewarm but the kids took to our new addition without hesitation and they questioned Alexa as if she was a new friend.  What colour do you like?  Are you happy?  Are you my friend?  Happy to oblige and respond Alexa provided constant feedback and response and never once said “I’m just a bit busy at the moment I’ll help later”.   Without any coaching I heard the kids engage Alexa in games and then heard them ask her to “play musical statues”.  I was astonished when she did, though her follow through needs work as no-one ever gets caught out for moving.

As we progressed it wasn’t long before Alexa was turning the lights and TV on and off in conjunction with various implementations of LightwaveRF and Philips Hue.   But largely Alexa was still consulted about the weather and asked to play music.  Dots were added to the family and for some reason unknown to me, we now host an Echo and three dots, dotted throughout the house.   Mostly the same questions get answered and as Alexa builds up knowledge more are answered but as has been said “there’s a lot of difference between listening and hearing” so where are we headed? I’m thinking in terms of the home use for busy families like us, for people with specific medical care, for people who live alone or people who live ‘without technology’  Could Alexa or other voice AI’s be a constant companion or personal assistant?   

At home with Alexa now

Eighteen months down the track and what we can do with Alexa changes so frequently you’d need to be interacting everyday to keep up.  While lights turning on and off in our house was interesting, now that Alexa can group devices it’s become more useful, especially over Christmas as an example where we had festooned the house inside and out with lights.   “Alexa, turn on Christmas” has our house resembling the Blackpool Illuminations in no time and equally quick they could be turned off.  “Alexa Good Morning” gets not only a cheery good morning and fact for day but also key lights and heating groups adjusted.  Likewise as I arrive home “Alexa, I’m home” or “Alexa Good Night” immediately things happen, as we have programmed them to.  I appreciate this could all be done via phone apps as well but the conjunction of the two and a voice command makes it pretty easy, dare I say natural.   

Alexa now can blast music throughout the house across the multiple devices (hopefully age appropriate Spotify tunes but still we’re not really any further forward on this) or on the different Amazon devices as requested.   Annoyingly we now have an intercom between the devices that scare the living daylights out of you as someone talks out through one of the dots!  In truth I’m not sure this method of communication will overtake that of instinctively shouting instructions but for now it’s fun.    We can send and leave messages to each other and know there is one waiting as Alexa’s ring glows yellow.  We can make phone calls and set multiple alarms at one time as opposed to one that could not be made recurrent.   The kids can cheat at homework with “Alexa spell elephant” using Word Nerd or engage in games like “Alexa, would you rather” or Alexa, start Animal Game”.   It’s hard to think of an animal that Alexa won’t guess and tough to decide between ‘would you rather have an alien in your house or be in an aliens house’.  

Even as we entered 2018 Amazon helped out by profiling potential New Year skills that could help us with our resolutions.   I know a few people in the office who will be able to add to their obsession with “Alexa, ask Fitbit how I’m doing today” and perhaps we should all engage in the “Alexa Ask Mindfulness for a minute meditation”.  I think I’ll avoid the ‘’ but then again how would she know if I did it!  With so much interaction is this voice already cemented as a ‘natural’ part of our lives?

Alexa, are you my friend?

It’s reported that Amazon Echo and Google Home devices were one of the most popular presents for Christmas 2017.  Two of my friends purchased these devices for friends and family and both commented that they might provide company for the recipients who both live alone.   Could saying good morning and getting your news provide companionship?  What about asking a question that you might ask a room-mate, partner or family member while watching TV or reading like  “Alexa when did Neil Armstrong die?” Would that provide an interaction that lessens the effect of loneliness and isolation?  Researchers from the University of Kansas suggest that interaction with AI type devices could provide short term relief from feelings of loneliness but they also warned that in the long-term spending time with personal assistants could cause problems with social interactions.  

The popularity of voice devices in the home can only aid the improvement in automated speech recognition (ASR) and in time natural language understanding (NLU).  As more and more people become engaged, more data can be gathered and analysed.  Steps in this direction will be imperative to make Alexa and other AI devices become more human, be able to engage in a conversation as opposed to just responding to a question.   As the synthesized voice improves surely so will the acceptance of these devices as companions?   Alexa can already read audio books for you and so long as you link your audible account up you get the voices of the narrators, I’m not sure Alexa’s voice would be great listening for a whole novel just yet.

Alexa, Goodnight, talk to you tomorrow.

I’ve moved on from lukewarm to a genuine interest and curiosity, feelings my kids do not have about voice or Alexa in particular.  To them it’s as normal as swiping a phone or tablet, using an emoji to express their emotions or watching people talking about playing games on YouTube.   Putting aside for a minute all the fun games and time saving tasks, voice AI systems can deliver results and  the pure interaction is fascinating to watch and play around with.  It’s hard to argue that “most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply” (Stephen R. Covey) so the more that Alexa or any of the AI devices are able to understand and communicate more ‘naturally’, the more they’ll have a chance of  being a lasting and dependable friend.   

In the Waracle office we have had a lot of experience with Amazon Alexa already. We regularly host Amazon Alexa Skills meetup in our Dundee and Glasgow offices to discuss in more detail developing skills and their uses.

The offices in Scotland have been a flood with ideas of how we can use to further enhance our customers apps and services. There may never be a better time to jump on the bandwagon!  If you want to talk more about , mobile app development and IoT   at Waracle mobile app developers today.