The Core Dump

A strong conviction that something must be done is the parent of many bad measures

[By Nic Lindh on Sunday, 29 May 2016]

“Tea, Earl Grey, hot”

Nic buys an Amazon Echo and is indubitably happy with the fantasy star ship in his head.

Virtual assistants are hot. Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, Microsoft’s Cortana and Google’s, well, Google are becoming more and more capable and smart. While Apple, Google, and Microsoft are shipping assistants on their smartphones and wearables, the one for the home right now is Alexa—Amazon’s ghost in the cylinder.

But competition is heating up: Google recently announced a competitor to the Echo coming in the fourth quarter of 2016, and Apple is rumored to introduce something in this space at their developer conference in mid-June. So competition is coming for Alexa, but right now it (Alexa is a bunch of software running in who knows how many data centers across America, so I’m going to refer to it as “it”, despite the female name and voice) is the only one you can buy and plonk down in your home.

If you’ve read this blog before you know I’m a massive sci-fi nerd, including of course the brilliant-if-uneven Star Trek: The Next Generation. I love Gene Roddenberry’s vision of Star Trek as showing us how we, as humanity, can be better. And despite the rickety sets and wobbly acting—apart from Sir Patrick Stewart, of course—Star Trek: TNG hit on so many great technological advances, like their reading pads that were pretty much tablets, the holodeck, which I never understood how they got people to leave voluntarily, the tricorders, which were pretty much smartphones with even more cool gear, and, of course, the taken-for-granted masterpiece, the ship itself. Just talk to the air and ship will know you’re talking to it. Ship will do what you need it to. Ship is your friend.

And now you can have ship in your house. Kind of. Ship’s primordial ooze ancestor. And you know what, ship’s distant ancestor ain’t half bad. Alexa knows thing. Alexa can help you with things.

But above all, you can talk to the air and the air responds. Sure, it’s not a true AI in any sense of the word—it’s dumb as a box of bricks, but when you talk to the air and it gets it, it’s magical. Seriously, it’s magic.

I giggled like a little girl when I first set it up and it responded to me.

“Alexa, tea, Earl Grey, hot.” Of course it knew how to respond to that.

For my use case, Alexa fits in well. I ask it random questions that pop into my head. “Alexa, what’s the temperature?” etc. I have it set timers and alarms. I have it play podcasts from my phone through its not-great-but-okay speaker.

It’s a spirit I can command. A dumb spirit now, sure, but it’s getting smarter every day, and who knows how smart it will get.

It’s future now.

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