I confess, I was nervous when my daughter and son-in-law gave us the Amazon Echo Dot for Christmas last year. I was fresh from reading about IOT (Internet of Things), the capability of innocent-seeming objects embedded with Internet capabilities, including toys, to respond and react to/with their owners, as well as reporting these interactions to some database on an unknown server (somewhere in Uzbekistan?) for analysis and use in marketing or who-knows-what. Consequently, I was reluctant to set it up. I wasn’t excited about having a device in my home that literally listened to everything that went on in it and could report it to anyone else who wanted to listen.
But my other two tech-savvy daughters were so excited about theirs and all the wonderful things it helped them do, that I finally gave in. I deleted my phone app where I kept my grocery list by manually entering the items I needed, and allowed Alexa to take over the job. I could call her by name and ask her to add something to my list. She would politely inform me that she had added orange juice to my shopping list, and sure enough, almost immediately orange juice showed up on the new Alexa app on my phone. Cool! Okay, that’s not so bad, although I realize that if the Echo Dot is syncing to my phone, my grocery list is probably on some unknown server somewhere waiting on some algorithm to analyze my planned purchases and email me coupons.
I tried out a few other affordances of Alexa. I asked her to play some Elvis Presley and some Beethoven. Her choices weren’t always mine, but I could always say “Alexa, stop!” and she obeyed with alacrity. I refused to use her to buy anything, which would entail revealing private credit information, but occasionally she would waken on her own and let me know about wonderful bargains I might be missing out on. I just ignored her.
Then I discovered her timer capabilities. That was a real plus! Setting a timer while I was cooking involved putting down whatever was in my hands, wiping or washing
them, and punching the buttons on the timer on the stove; handy it was not. But with Alexa, I could use my voice. “Alexa,” I would say to get her attention, “Timer, thirty seconds.” Thirty seconds later she played a cute little tune to let me know thirty seconds was up. “Alexa, stop,” I tell her, and she complies. Loving this timer option!
Recently, my older daughter and I were having a discussion on speech recognition (SR) software. As a teacher of special ed students, she had been experimenting with using it to support her students in their writing. Although their writing seemed to be improving, she was wondering if somehow using SR was cheating them from learning to spell on their own. I shared with her an article I had just read where these issues were discussed both positively and negatively. The authors came down in favor of SR, with caveats, suggesting that as long as the students re-read and recopied their writing, they were getting much needed practice in spelling and decoding words.
Reading the article helped me make the connection between SR and Alexa. The Echo Dot and other similar devices are built on this technology. The improvement in SR
technology over the last decade has been phenomenal, but let me tell you, it isn’t perfect! Example en pointe.
For supper this evening, I was looking for something quick and easy. I decided to heat up some frozen quesadillas. It wouldn’t take much time to do, according to the directions, but it was a little involved. First, I had to put one frozen quesadilla on a plate and thaw it for one minute and fifteen seconds in the microwave. Then I was to transfer the quesadilla to a hot frying pan, heat for two minutes and thirty seconds, turn it over and heat for another two minutes and thirty seconds. Seemed pretty straight forward, but I had four to heat, so I thought I could heat one in the microwave,
transfer it to the skillet and cook the first one while I put another one in the microwave. I could use Alexa to time the skillet cooking. It should work like a charm, right?
The first round went well. I actually forgot to preheat the skillet, so I had two thawed out in the microwave by the time I was ready to have Alexa start timing. “Alexa,” I said, “Timer, two—“ Before I could complete my instructions, Alexa said, “Timer. For how long?”
“Two minutes, thirty seconds,” I answered. “Timer, two minutes and thirty seconds starting now,” Alexa said. Two minutes and thirty seconds later, just like clockwor
k, Alexa played her little tune.
“Alexa, stop,” I told her. She did. I turned the quesadillas and then said, “Alexa, timer, two–”
Again she interrupted me. “Timer. For how long?” If you’d just listen until I finish talking, I was thinking.
“Two minutes and thirty seconds,” I said.
“Timer, ten minutes and thirty seconds, starting now.”
“Alexa, stop!” I cried and tried to start over. “Alexa, timer, two—”
Yes, she interrupted me again. “Timer. For how long?”
“Two minutes and thirty seconds.”
“Second timer, two minutes and thirty seconds, starting now.”
I give up. Maybe I should just go back to using a watch or an egg timer until Alexa can tell the difference between two and ten. That will certainly be safer…