Alexa’s machine-learning algorithms and rapidly expanding skillset make her smarter as time goes on: so while today she can play music, control your lights and order taxis, tomorrow she might initiate global thermonuclear war for a laugh. First launched in the US earlier this year, the Echo has been a huge success among smart home enthusiasts.
The smaller version, the Echo Dot, has been sold out since launch. It’s identical to the larger Echo in function, but doesn’t contain a speaker. Instead it connects to your existing sound system via Bluetooth or line-out. At £50 a pop for the little one, Amazon is hoping you’ll kit out your entire flat with them to create an omnipresent, Star Trek style computer.
How does it work? You say “Alexa”, which wakes the Echo up, followed by your command. Seven microphones encircling the top of the device work to isolate your voice from loud background noise and music, so that she’ll easily catch what you say from across the room rather than you having to crouch down and shout into the thing.
Does it actually work? It’s pretty good at understanding what you’re asking. At a demo this week, Amazon gave some UK-specific examples of Alexa’s ability to discern context in natural language. You can ask things like “when are Spurs playing next?” and she’ll understand that you mean the Premier League team and not the spiky bits on the ends of cowboys’ shoes. Natural sounding text-to-speech is still stuck in the uncanny valley however, so Alexa still sounds slightly robotic and other-worldly.
Right, but is it useful? The Echo works with a bunch of other smart-home devices, so if you’ve kitted your house out with intelligent thermostats and lights then it ties them all together in a really neat way. Say “Alexa, I’m cold” and she’ll dutifully turn up the heat on your Nest thermostat. Tell her to turn off all the lights and, if you’ve got the right bulbs, you’ll be plunged into darkness. Smart-home owners can ask her if they’ve locked the back door, or to turn on the oven.
Even if you’re smart-home averse, she still performs useful functions. Alexa can order an Uber for you, play music, tell jokes, read headlines, curate shopping lists, give travel updates and weather forecasts, answer trivia questions, call in curries from Just Eat and spout recipes from Jamie Oliver’s cookbook.
Is that useful? Maybe for some. A big part of the Echo’s appeal is in the gimmick of the thing – nobody really needs an ominous looking cylinder in the corner of the room that tells them how tall Big Ben is – but as more and more skills are added it could feasibly be the thin edge of the virtual assistant wedge. I definitely want to cover my entire house in them, but then I’m an easily excitable science-fiction nerd whose opinions shouldn’t be trusted.
What if I don’t want Amazon spying on all of my conversations so it can sell me things later? Amazon is keen to allay privacy concerns as it simultaneously fills your home with listening devices. Like Siri and Google Now, the voice processing happens online, but the Echo will only start transmitting what you say after hearing the word “Alexa”. The LED ring will turn blue as it beams your question off to Amazon for processing, so it’s clear when the device is recording what you say.
You can use the app to see a list of things you’ve asked, and there’s a big “delete all” button – useful if you’ve asked a series of spectacularly stupid questions you don’t want anyone to know about. There’s also a mute button on the device that turns the LED ring red and physically disconnects power to the microphones. Helpful if you want to say something really sexy or illegal.
How much does it cost? The Echo (the tall one with the built-in speaker) costs £149.99 and launches 28 September. Prime customers can pre-order one now and get a £50 discount. The Echo Dot (the puck shaped one) is £49.99. You can buy a six-pack of them, in which the sixth Dot is free, or if you’re truly committed to the idea of sticking microphones all over the place, you can buy a twelve-pack. Both the Echo and Dot come in black and white.