How often do you trust Siri to do much besides setting a timer when you’re cooking pasta, or telling you whether or not it’s going to rain? Since they crept into our pockets, virtual assistants haven’t progressed much past the point of pseudo-capable helpers, who are unreliable in most roles beyond fancy egg-timers and meteorologists with awkward cadence.
The Amazon Echo is undeniably futuristic, but it’s not quite the science-fiction ideal you might be hoping for. It’s a voice-controlled bluetooth speaker that can hear you from across the room using a clutch of directional microphones arranged in a ring around its top. You don’t need to get up from your seat, or even speak up, just say “Alexa” and her LEDs will shimmer in silent anticipation of your command. (You can also say “election”, I’ve discovered, which causes a few hiccups in any politically minded households.)
She’ll play music. She’ll give you sports results and fixtures. She can control smart home devices like the Nest thermostat and Philips Hue light bulbs. She’ll read off news briefings and upcoming calendar appointments. She’ll also, as her digital ancestors once did, set timers and give weather forecasts.
Primarily, I’ve found the Amazon Echo most useful in the mornings. After she rouses me with a polite thrumming sound I’ll groggily demand to know the news, at which point she reels off a Sky News briefing so depressing that I slither out of bed a sad husk. Suitably informed of the world’s latest horrors, I’ll ask her to turn on the radio or to stream music from Spotify. She does all of these things without fuss. This is the Amazon Echo at its most useful, rising above gimmick-status and fitting into a practical morning routine.
Some of her other functions are more like party tricks, and it’s when she fails to respond properly that the curtain is lifted and the limitations become apparent. There really aren’t many occasions in which you need a friendly voice in the corner of the room to list off Tom Hanks films. And seemingly straightforward questions like “when did Japan last host the World Cup” can flummox her. Tell her you need medical assistance and, in a darkly comic misunderstanding, she’ll add “medical assistance” to your shopping list. The voice-recognition is near faultless, but the interpretation of some commands leaves room for improvement.
Unrealistic too is the idea that you’d buy something from Amazon using just your voice, basing your purchasing decision on nothing but a description and price that Alexa gives you. This feature is clearly more useful for recurring purchases such as washing up liquid or bin bags, but not, as I found, for one-off purchases like a baking tray or ornamental bust. Not being able to actually see the tray in question before assenting to the £5.28 asking price was an unexpected source of anxiety, and one you can emulate yourself by walking into a Robert Dyas wearing a blindfold.
No, the Amazon Echo best integrates into your everyday habits when it’s performing the most simple tasks. Turn on the lights, fire up the radiators, warm up the coffee machine, play me a podcast – it’s like having a conversation with your house, and the more smart gubbins you slot into your power sockets, thermostats and entertainment systems, the more useful the little speaker becomes.
New abilities are being added, and the cloud-based Alexa is constantly being made cleverer, so its usefulness should expand over time. Anyone can create and launch their own Alexa skills too, though at the moment the skills database is flooded with inane rubbish uploaded by dimwits. One of them will read off miniature schnauzer facts, if that’s the sort of things you’re after. More useful skills however include Uber (it can summon a taxi) and Just Eat (it can summon a curry).
It’s testament to the Amazon Echo’s practicality and accessibility that I talk to this black cylinder every day. Right now it’s an effective way of controlling stuff around the house that just works, but Alexa also represents a tipping point for virtual assistance, one that proves digital servants can be routinely convenient rather than just an occasional novelty.