Testing Amazon’s Echo, an impressive verbal valet

The Amazon Echo, an artificially intelligent personal assistant answering to the name Alexa.
New York Times
The Amazon Echo, an artificially intelligent personal assistant answering to the name Alexa.

Much as I enjoy PG Wodehouse’s Jeeves novels and the TV series “Downton Abbey,” I’ve never fancied having a valet. Imagine paying somebody to wake you, hand you the newspaper, remind you of the afternoon fox hunt, and help you put on your clothes. Creepy.

And then I met Alexa, the electronic servant packed into a sleek black cylinder called Echo. This $180 device from Amazon uses voice recognition and a broadband Internet connection to cater to my digital whims. After a few days I’ve begun to see that Downton’s Lord Crawley is onto something. A chap can get used to this. It points us toward a future in which we’ll control gadgets with our lips and not our fingers.

“Alexa, wake me at 7,” I mutter before tumbling into bed. Sure enough, she starts to warble right on time, falling silent the moment I tell her to stop. “Alexa, what’s on my calendar?” I ask, and a warm female voice rattles off my next four days’ worth of appointments. The words emerge all jumbled together, but no matter; I get the picture.

And then I get the news. “Alexa, flash briefing,” I say, and suddenly I’m listening to the latest headlines from NPR and the BBC. More trouble in Greece, it seems. Pity. Must call my broker.

Too bad Alexa can’t make breakfast. Actually, there are a lot of things she can’t do. But Amazon’s Echo is already excellent and bound to get better as its software is upgraded.

It’s a bit confusing that the device is called Echo, but answers to the name Alexa. Actually, Alexa is the brains of the system, and Echo is the first hardware product to offer it. Amazon hopes to add Alexa software to many other devices.

But it started with Echo, which looks like a jet-black can for tennis balls. The lower two-thirds of the device is a speaker for playing Alexa’s voice, as well as news reports and music streamed from Amazon’s online music service. It’s a decent enough speaker at low volume, but sounds rough when you turn it way up.

Alexa gets her brains from the Internet. During setup, you connect the Echo to your Wi-Fi network. Then you set it up using an app, available for Android or Apple devices.

The Echo uses an array of seven microphones to pick up voices. I found it remarkably accurate, even when I spoke softly. A plastic ring around the rim of the device lights up when you say “Alexa,” the trigger word that tells Echo you’re about to give orders.

“Alexa, what’s the weather like?” generates the latest forecast. “Alexa, play Henry Mancini” gives me a nostalgic playback of 1960s movie music. “Alexa, remind me to buy potatoes” adds it to my smartphone’s shopping list. It’s all hands-free, because Echo is constantly listening. It’s a potential privacy threat, but Amazon says that nothing you say is recorded unless it’s preceded by the word “Alexa.”

Amazon built in a few goofy gimmicks, similar to those you’ll find in Apple’s Siri speech-recognition software. For instance, you can say “Alexa, tell a joke,” and prepare to be semi-amused. Alexa is lousy at answering requests for random facts; for instance, it doesn’t know the number of planets in the solar system. Throw the same question at Siri and at least the screen shows the relevant Wikipedia article. Google’s rival software Google Now did best of all, speaking the names of all eight planets.

Still, Alexa’s bound to get smarter over time, and also a lot more powerful. Major companies will make their services Alexa-compatible later this year. Online retailer StubHub will verbally sell you concert tickets; financial software maker Intuit will let customers ask for their bank account balance; AOL will read its members the latest news headlines.

In addition, Amazon is investing $100 million in companies building Alexa-compatible products. The company wants Alexa embedded into practically anything electronic – TV sets, kitchen appliances, or the bathroom medicine cabinet. You’ve heard of the Internet of Things, the effort to connect virtually every device to the network? Amazon wants us to control all these gadgets with our mouths.

So in a few years, I’ll walk into the house and say, “Alexa, turn on the Red Sox game, preheat the oven to 350, set the thermostat to 72, and transfer $500 from savings to checking.” And it’ll all happen, just like that. I’ll still have to dress myself and pour my own coffee, but I think I can manage.

Hiawatha Bray is a technology reporter for the Boston Globe. E-mail him at h_bray@globe.com.
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