Answers to Every Question My Family Asked About Alexa During the Holidays
Friends and family had a lot of questions about Amazon Alexa and Google Home. Here’s what I told them.
More than two years since the launch of the first Amazon Echo, the popularity of voice assistants shows no sign of slowing down. In fact, the Amazon Echo Dot was the top-selling product by any manufacturer on Amazon this holiday season, with “tens of millions” sold worldwide.
Like many startup founders, my family doesn’t really understand what our company does, but they do know it involves Amazon Alexa and Google Home. So when we were all getting together for various dinners and gift-openings over the holidays, I received various questions about voice assistants and smart speakers, often the same questions repeated by different people.
In an effort to both share those answers with others, and give you an idea of what is on people’s minds as it relates to voice, I decided to share some of the most frequent questions, and my answers, below.
What do you use Alexa for?
Music is by far the most popular use for smart speakers. Since we got an Alexa a few years ago, there is barely a moment that goes by in our house where music isn’t playing. We also ask for the weather, use timers for cooking, and set reminders several times a day. I connected Alexa to my work calendar, so my wife can ask if I have anything happening during the evening on a particular day. And when I first got started with Alexa, I created a custom ‘Skill’ (what Alexa calls apps) that tells me when the next bus is coming to the bus stop downstairs from my apartment. That’s a big part of what got me excited about helping other people design third-party Skills.
There are also lots of great Skills that I’ve used a few times. You can ask Food Network to “send me this recipe” while you’re watching a cooking show and it will email you the recipe for the show that’s currently airing. Johnnie Walker has a fun Skill that walks you through a guided whisky tasting in your own home. You can also listen to the news, turn on white noise, or ask NORAD where Santa was on Christmas Eve.
Do you feel comfortable with something that is always listening to you?
Alexa isn’t always listening. Alexa only “wakes up” when her name is spoken. The speaker device itself is just listening for that one word to be said, and it’s only when it hears the name that it starts to record the speech and send it to Amazon to process. Assuming you could even build a system that could records millions of conversations, efficiently process all of that language, then do anything useful with it, it wouldn’t really be worth all of that effort to, what, better promote products to you on Amazon.com?
If it were constantly recording, you would also be able to detect that network traffic, and no one has yet to detect that. Amazon wouldn’t risk a new platform they are investing a ton of resources into just to run better ads.
Didn’t Alexa send a murderer to jail?
Not exactly. There was a murder case where prosecutors sought recordings from an Amazon Echo that was in the house at the time, but Amazon refused to release them. The defendant eventually agreed to hand them over, and they contained nothing incriminating.
Alexa only records snippets of audio when her name is spoken, so for anything to have been heard, the name “Alexa” would actually have to be uttered repeatedly during an altercation, which seems unlikely.
I heard Alexa is making children rude because they don’t have to say “Please” or “Thank you.”
I can’t speak for every child, but seeing my four-year-old grow up with an Alexa over the last two years, I don’t have this concern. She knows Alexa isn’t a real person, just like she knows the people in the television aren’t really there. My daughter doesn’t respond when Dora or Elmo asks her a question during a show, but she never ignores real people when they talk to her.
My daughter doesn’t hear her parents say “Thank you” to Alexa, so she doesn’t either. She does hear us say “Thank you” to real people, so she does as well.
Personally, I don’t want her to think Alexa is a person, as she shouldn’t have the same expectations of a voice assistant that she would of a person. I want her to think of Alexa as a machine that you can speak to, because she’s going to grow up in a world where you talk to every kind of machine, from smart speakers to televisions to cars to dishwashers.
Which is better, Amazon Alexa or Google Home?
Personally, I prefer Alexa. Google is better at answering random questions, but Alexa has a better platform for third-party apps, especially smart home apps. To be fair, Google has caught up quite a bit this year, but Alexa was first, and there isn’t much reason for me to switch.
And while it might seem trivial, I prefer saying “Alexa” over “Hey Google” and find Alexa’s voice more pleasant and familiar. I also think the Echo, as a speaker, sounds better than the Home (though others disagree).
So should I get a smart speaker?
I’m a bit biased, but I’d recommend getting one. The Amazon Echo Dot is only $29, so it’s a good deal even if you don’t use it for much more than the basics. But I’ll bet once you buy one, you’ll love it and eventually get a few more for around the house.
There’s a reason all of the big tech companies are pouring billions of dollars into voice platforms. Voice is going to change the way we do everything, and is definitely worth becoming more familiar with.
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