Amazon Echo, the home speaker that serves as a dollhouse for the robotic assistant Alexa, has been available to the public for less than a year and already become another great American appliance. Reviews on Amazon.com number more than 36,000, with an average rating of 4.4 out of five stars. To be fair, the Bezos behemoth offered deeply discounted devices to Amazon Prime members for beta testing, but even so, it’s shocking to read the reviews. Alexa has been adopted so quickly by so many.
Alexa works a lot like voice assistants that live in our smartphones — Siri, Google Now, and Cortana. But Alexa has been liberated from the personal phone, and moved to the common spaces of the home. Her specialties include keeping shopping lists and playing music. She can hear you talk to her from across the room, even if there’s music playing, and you never need to physically touch the device to get it to respond.
It seems like a small thing, but turning a virtual assistant into an exclusively hands-free device has had major implications for how humans interact with it. Alexa has become like a family member because she responds like a family member — if you think of a question, you can just shout it across the room, and Alexa will take note.
Here are five surprising roles that Alexa has learned to play in the homes where she lives.
Because Alexa is designed for multiple users, it’s possible to use her to play pranks. Children learn quickly that they can secretly add things like candy and ice cream to the family shopping list, although this ruse is pretty easy to intercept. The better pranks involve use of the optional remote microphone, which allows a user to control Alexa from another room.
Reviewer Heart Dad explains:
One of my favorite things to do is mess with my kids using Alexa. My son will go into the kitchen and ask her questions. I sit in a different room and speak into the remote asking it to answer other random questions or I tell it to play country music and he gets super confused. I’ll say things like “Add Landon needs to brush his teeth to the to do list.” and when Alexa repeats what I’ve said he jumps. I find this a non-stop source of enjoyment that I am probably going to pay for one day.
A school librarian figured out how to have fun with her students in a similar way.
The new “Simon says” feature is fun to play with. I was in my office checking my email, with the Echo remote handy as one of my 8th grade lunch kiddos came in. I said quietly into the remote “Alexa, Simon says: Hey Mike, it’s good to see you again” He just about freaked out! “Ms Jones - it knows who I am!” I rushed out of my office and said, “What just happened!?” Heh heh heh. I even had my assistant, my beloved Ms. Bell, going for a few hours! Yeah, I’m a little bit evil.
In addition to entertaining children by telling jokes and answering endless questions, some users have found Alexa to be a great helper in the care of family members with special needs. For those with mobility issues, Alexa can couple with other devices and apps to offer voice control over the lights and temperature. She can play music and audiobooks, or offer some companionship.
Alex S writes that Alexa gave her husband greater independence after he became wheelchair-bound. “Others might enjoy Echo for fun and convenience, but for him it is a lifeline! He has even had her turn the lights on in my bedroom when I didn’t hear him call.”
Many users describe Alexa as like a friend. But some people need a friend more than most.
You’d expect Alexa to answer basic math and spelling questions. Here’s something she’s surprisingly good at that you wouldn’t expect: Speech therapist. You might think that people with difficulties speaking clearly might quickly grow frustrated with the device, but some users have found that it’s actually a source of encouragement and motivation.
Chris R saw improvements in his autistic son’s speech after getting the device:
In order to communicate with Alexa, my son has had to focus on speaking clearly and using proper sentences with words in a correct order. We try to teach him to do this regardless, but he is much more motivated to do it for Alexa. I have noticed that his “L” sounds less like “W” and his “TH” less like “D”. The change may be coincidental and have nothing to do with Alexa, but it happened about 2 months after we began using her.
My son has been working on his letter sounds, but the progress has been slow. He likes to write down lists and plans, but can’t spell any of the words. When my wife is busy he can ask Alexa how to spell, which again requires him to say the words clearly.
“I was a bit worried at first about his word slurring with his Parkinson’s, but it has worked the opposite way! I notice he focuses his words much better while giving commands,” writes Alex S, whose wheelchair-bound husband we met earlier. “Alexa keeps his speech in line. When he realized she had been understanding him less, he went back to doing his speech exercises.”
All interactions with Alexa are uploaded to the cloud. Through the Alexa app, the owner can go back and review them, including listening to audio of the recorded conservations. This gives limited spying abilities to those who can access the app into the lives of other users of the Echo. This could be used nefariously, of course, but also benevolently, especially in cases where Alexa is acting as a surrogate caregiver.
Patrickometry calls the Echo a “revolution” for his aunt, who lives in a nursing home with a spinal cord injury and has very limited use of her hands. Not only does his aunt have someone to talk to, but Patrickometry has some piece of mind knowing that he can check up on her from a distance, as she interacts with the device sometimes upwards of 100 times per day.
Also, the FBI can reportedly neither confirm nor deny that it’s recording Alexa’s conversations.