« Back to Posts

The Year Of Alexa

Chances are you’ve already read an article from someone at CES proclaiming how voice and voice commands are the future of, well, just about everything. If they were really on their game, they’ll have mentioned voice-powered AI, and the all-stars among them no doubt managed to tie that voice-powered AI into a frictionless global market fueled by Bitcoin and/or cryptocurrency.

(That’s six buzzwords. Someone’s got to have bingo.)

Meanwhile, back here on earth, it’s worthwhile to point out that while voice activated technology, of the sort represented by Alexa, can be all that and a bag of chips, it does have its limitations, most of them financial.

Let’s take TV.

For the most part, Alexa and other voice activated tech can do some basic tricks that aren’t all that hard to program. She can pause, play and stop. Rewind and fast-forward in specific time increments. Search for tagged keywords. And while it may seems amazing that Alexa  can search through every single movie in the world to find Thelma and Louise when you say “Alexa! What’s the movie with Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon and the car?” it’s really just searching the way Google does and then reading you the answer. (And FWIW, Thelma and Louise is the only movie that Davis and Sarandon both starred in.)

That’s a great and easy use case for Alexa and for voice activated technology in general.

This process becomes “AI” in the hands of the marketing department when the voice activated device reads you a list of other movies you might also want to add to your watchlist, said suggestions coming directly from the “People Also Searched For” list most search engines generate.  In the hands of marketing writers  this becomes “using artificial intelligence, our system can even anticipate what a user might want to watch next and offer up suggestions!”

Go Alexa, Go!

Now I am a big fan of voice activated technology in general, Alexa in particular. I’ve had one since they first rolled out and the whole family uses Alexa to turn lights on and off, adjust the thermostat, play Jeopardy, read the news and of course play music. I even have a Dot set up in my car, as detailed here.

So I know a thing or two about Alexa. Including the fact that if you say “Alexa, Weather is the what?” she still reads you today’s forecast. (You’re welcome.)

The other thing to know about Alexa is that most of the things she does beyond controlling nearby electronic devices with updatable firmware and built-in microphones costs money. Lots of money, in fact.

So the lights she turns on and off in my house are all lamps that are plugged into relatively cheap Z-wave enabled plugs that allow them to talk to Alexa. Installing that for any of the wired-in recessed and other ceiling-based lighting would require a costly visit from an electrician. (I’m not that handy.) Alexa can turn TVs on and off… if you have a new connected TV. Ditto appliances. You want a refrigerator with Alexa baked in? Get ready to spend over $2500 for a new refrigerator. You can’t retrofit your two year old Sub Zero.

Point being that while there’s a lot of great things that voice enabled technology can do, the problem with any sort of Internet of Things (last year’s CES buzzword) is that those things cost a whole lot of money. Money most people aren’t going to spend just to get a talking refrigerator. And so it’s going to take a quite a while before any of those cool things you’ve seen on display at CES actually become a reality.


Where Alexa and similar voice activated devices do have a real future, however,  is in cars. Using your voice to change radio stations turn up the heat, turn on the rear defroster and windshield wiper and input a destination for the navigation system is a lot safer than doing it manually.

What’s more, voice activation can work with a new car or be retrofitted (for many things) to an old one. The programming isn’t that hard and there’s a wealth of new app-based features that can be accommodated, like apps that find you parking spaces (the iTunes app store has been pushing them bigly this week.)  So if you want to add “AI” you can have Alexa ask you if you want her to find you a parking space after you’ve asked her for directions to the nearest Starbucks.

Voice technology will be adopted quickly over the next year, not so much because it’s easy, but because it finally works. Apple rolled out poor Siri long before the technology was perfected and the comedy(ish) of errors that resulted turned people off to voice activation for a while. But Alexa actually understands most of what you say to her and Google Home does too, which is bringing people around to the possibilities.

Which means that The Jetsons and Star Trek are getting even closer to reality.

Happy CES.