Alexa:  Too soon?

I asked my friend Raven if she was interested in Alexa.

Raven said she didn’t know what it did, or how she would use it.

  • She said she didn’t trust it. “Its because its listening. It feels like it knows what you say. That seems scary and not private.”
  • Me, “But what about your phone?  Do you think that is actually private?”
  • Raven sighed, and said “My phone is useful enough to me that I don’t think about it”.

1.WHO is Alexa for today?

Homeowners with an attitude toward investing in technology. Alexa is also a business strategy for Amazon.

First let’s talk about us: if you can find value in using your voice to execute a task in your house, you could find value in Alexa.

For Smart in Five, we have been digging over the last 6 months to explore what Alexa might mean for our senior citizens; its a hot debate.  The vote it still out.  Out of the gate, we can acknowledge that if you have mobility or other physical challenges, voice functionality can enhance your experience.  There seems to be an easy win for Alexa.

But is there more for our aging parents and grandparents?   What can Alexa do to empower us as we age?

When talking Alexa and senior citizens, one must mention the SNL skit.  People laugh because they think it is on target.  Is this what technology for seniors looks like?  I do love that uh-huh feature, because as humans, we just want someone to listen.  That’s not just about our elderly though; I have tons of millennial friends who need that feature.

Alexa Skills for Alexa and the Elderly

A woman recently told me her husband with an early phase of dementia loves Alexa, because he can call his daughter by saying, ‘Alexa, call Susie’.  Without Alexa, he is not longer able to use a phone easily.  It has not occurred to him to say “Alexa call 911” yet. My father, who had dementia, might have used it to call 911, multiple times per day, when he couldn’t find the remote control.  Brain disease and technology can be friends or enemies; its all about timing.  Actually I can see him liking it early on, but then it being too complex for him, after the disease progresses.

In terms of skills being developed specifically for senior citizens and elderly, is interesting.  This skill is going to be available in 2018.  They state it is “the Marvee Alexa Skill for Older Adults and Families”, including Morning Beacon, Social Visit, Call me, and Family News functionality.  It will work like you log onto the website to register, then enable it in Alexa. Marvee is the founder Heidi Culbertson’s mother, who had increasing challenges with aging.  This is very cool in concept and I’d like to hear more about people using it once it goes live.  They have a lot of focus on community in their content, and if Alexa can help you build a community that you can interact with, it enriches the value of the ecosystem.  I think this vision by Marvee is inspiring and I’m rooting for them.  This is the kind of stuff we’d like to see with Alexa for senior citizens.

As for Amazon, they are investing it because it is part their overall platform of services.  Ecosystem, baby.  Read more in when.

2.  WHAT is Alexa, and what is a Skill ? 

Alexa is a device, software system and platform.

It means all of those things, and can mean one of them singularly.   A skill is what it does; the verb action of CALL, TURN OFF, START, END etc.  Add a noun, and you have functionality, or a skill. 



Devices and companies keep changing here in voice enabled artificial intelligence platforms.  So this is a discussion of all Voice AI, and their family of devices, platforms, software and functions, with Amazon’s Alexa being the 10,000,000 LB gorilla (as Alexa is much much bigger than the 10,000 lb gorilla). Its like 4 Alexa devices for every 1 Google device through 2017; Google is making a run at India as of April 2018, as reported by the Verge.  They already have some integrate with India streaming music services, so this is their angle for creating a voice enabled platform.

For completeness, we talk Alexa with Google Home, and Apple Home Pod, plus any middle wear or additional smart devices, together.  Alexa seems the most mature by far considering their market dominance.  When considering your device brand choice, I would frame it as a platform commitment.  I would choose Apple or Google if I had an existing commitment to one of those ecosystems like Apple TV or I owned a fleet of macs.   Personally, I have an android phone, a few PCs, and a Samsung TV, so in technology terms I have no brand platform alliance and am platform agnostic.  With this perspective, if I wanted voice enabled AI today in my house, I would choose Alexa because its the most mature, and there is no compelling reason not to (I have no signifant money spent on technology another platform brand like Apple).  When thinking like this, your platform commitment isn’t forever so don’t feel like you are getting married.   Your platform commitment could be probably shorter than the lifetime of owning a car, or even a TV.

Here are all the players:

There are tons of best skill lists.  So if you want to get a better sense of what Alexa can really do, you can skim these kinds of lists:

3.  WHERE is Alexa valuable today ?

In your household. In a few retirement communities and nursing homes who are willing to bet on technology.  Maybe a little in your car.

I think its hard to talk about Alexa without the other devices and part of a larger schema.  In the Internet of Things paradigm, the primary potential value of Alexa is to use your voice to trigger another device to do something.  This idea that your house is your physical technology ecosystem, so the stuff in your house needs to be part of the system.

You can use Alexa with SmartThings and use proximity to manage access.  Anyone in the system could use the app to see if anyone else was at the house instead of communicating directly with the other person, which changed the dynamics of the house to be more like a place on 4square you might be checking into.  You can read the log with all the timestamps for all the doors and kind of reconstruct what happened in the space, as if you were there, and then you didn’t need to be.  I never thought that having that kind of data about the house would change my perception of the space, but it did.

I don’t use Alexa for making calls, but the more I read the more I think that this ‘instant’ conference call speakerphone functionality is kind of sexy.

Alexa at Front Porch / Carlsbad by the Sea

In this article from MIT tech review , they describe how the Front Porch Center for Innovation and Wellbeing and their project at Carlsbad by the Sea retirement community. Front Porch is a not for profit family of companies and partnerships, with the innovation team being one of many initiatives, they say “we do good and we do well’.  If you look at their annual report, you can see that they operate many beds (like the Carlsbad by the Sea Retirement Community), own a lot of physical assets, and are supported buy a giant state California bond.  It also looks like they have less private pay, more Medicare and an increase in operating expenses over time.  This means they need to change something to create some G&A leverage, and technology is a great angle to do it from.  But they haven’t found it yet, otherwise we’d be reading about it and remodeling the example everywhere else.  I suggest therefore they are looking into Alexa, and have an entire team dedicated to innovation, in a bi-model organizational design kind of way.

I think this Front Porch example is a sign of hope even if Alexa isn’t the solution.  Let’s keep hoping that companies will drive internal support to find the right enhancements to Alexa and additional devices that make it work for all of us at all parts of our life.  And for them, drive down their G&A.

4. When, will Alexa be so useful that I can’t resist?

There are lots of programs that show how Amazon is working to enrich the Amazon platform with Alexa to get me, my friends, my parents, my senior citizens, on board.  

Here’s what I can see about Amazon and Alexa.They are working to enable the technology community to build third party skills to enhance the ecosystem.   They tweet t-shirts and contests to inspire people to expand their functionality.  Need a tshirt?

CES 2018

At CES 2018, these are the topics which the Alexa team was promoting to developers.  This shows where Amazon wants to take us next.  Which of these can help us as we age?

  • Amazon’s Quest for Alexa to Be Everywhere
  • Building a Smarter Home with Alexa
  • Enabling the Future of Automotive with Alexa
  • The Art and Science of Alexa Conversation
  • Integrate Alexa Voice Technology into Your Product
  • Bringing Voice Play Experiences to Alexa-Connected Products
  • Advancing Alexa Skill building: Conversation and Memory
  • How to build an Alexa Gadget
  • Build a Far Field Alexa-Enabled Product with Intel
  • Panel: The Appeal of Smart Speakers: What’s Driving Sales?
  • Panel: CNET Smart Home Panel

How to build a Far Field Alexa- Enabled Product with Intel is an interesting topic to me.  This feels like ‘more devices, more functionality’, and I feel like I could say that about half the topics they list.

Alexa Prize and Alexa Fund

Amazon is throwing money at people, like The Alexa Fund is an invitation to companies.  They want innovated products or services that use voice technology to improve customers lives – from early-stage pre-revenue companies that are just starting out, to established brands.

Amazon has also create the Alexa prize: Over $3.5 Million to advance conversational Artificial Intelligence.  December 2017 to November 2018.  This prize shows Amazon’s investment in driving the ‘conversationablity’ of Alexa, in ‘popular topics’.  They understand we want more uh-huh (SNL Skit), that the mimicking of human interaction in a conversational setting might be the most valuable use of the technology, even if we haven’t figured it out yet.  Everyone needs a friend, I feel like 50% of country songs are written about this – can Alexa be my cowboy?

These teams will create social bots that can converse coherently and engaging with humans on a range of current events and popular topics such as entertainment, sports, politics, technology and fashion.

The following Universities are participants:

Amazon is playing a long game here in flooding the market with ideas and work and then let the ideas and market carve the way.  It is kind of like crowd-sourcing, and kind of like old fashioned free economy.  Their openness, and commitment to build tools to enable people to leverage ‘the platform’ is part of the vision.  Read this about the lab if you want to see some of the details about the testing tools or training tools they provide to support the platform.

Or maybe, they see AI as the flywheel, and Alexa is actually at the edge, not the hub.  This article also explains how Alexa came about, what Amazon culture was like at the time, and its 6 page standard for describing any company initiative.  They also credit Amazon with being able to break out past just their device the Echo, to create the larger product landscape for Alexa.  This article answers the question, Alexa, how is Amazon doing in AI?

5.  WHY are we interested in Alexa?

I don’t have Alexa, Google Home or Home Pod yet.

The main reason I don’t have Alexa is that it doesn’t do enough for me yet to want it.  I don’t care about privacy I know that’s not a real thing.

When it occurred to me to ask her questions, she only understood me 50% of the time.  It might take me two tries of yelling at Alexa to play meditation sounds.

I’m a technology snob with discerning taste, and no extra cash.

  • A lot of times when I ask Alexa questions, they are very esoteric questions based on whatever I’m doing; rarely do I care about weather or sports, and I don’t game.  It might be like ‘Alexa, what was Corey Feldman’s first movie’.  She’s not ready for me yet.
  • I don’t really cook right now, so any of the cooking functionality like recipes, or timers which seem useful to me based on how others describe it.  I still like my old copy of Joy of Cooking, as well as my microwave timer.
  • I don’t listen to podcasts because they make me sleep.;people talking on a recording are soothing to me.  My absorption of deep information of someone reading to me is way lower than me reading to myself, and at some level this affects what I want to use voice interaction for.  I’m a static kinestic learner, so I do best with retaining information if I can take notes while you are talking.  I imagine I’m the opposite of most people – they are probably better at listening than reading.   I’m great in a conversation mind you, because there is another human there and so that keeps me engaged in a unique way.

Alexa recorded all our requests, so the person I was staying with could go in and review what was asked and hear the request.  I’m not a match for this Alexa thing right now.

What would make me turn the corner and start using Alexa?  As it is changing, where do I think it is going?

For me, I would change if I made a big investment in something that added significant functionality.  Like if I bought a newer car that had Alexa functionality, and so then I might be inspired to upgrade my house.

Or if I needed to replace my oven then I might consider it.  Probably not if I replaced my refrigerator.  There doesn’t seem to be much here I need yet.

So, the answer is, more devices in the ecosystem would move the needle for me.What does that mean for seniors and the rest of us?

Alexa is your Friend

I haven’t thought much about Alexa being my friend and to have someone with whom to talk.  This could be because I am a social introvert, so my home time is perfect empty and quiet.  There is enough chatter in my head to fill my house and my neighbor’s house, I don’t need Alexa chiming in to ruin my momentum.

When I reflect on art and what it might teach me about what’s possible from Alexa, I think about Spike Jonze’s movie Her.  In watching that movie, I had to really ask myself some questions about what we as humans want from each other, and how much technology can mimic it.  Scarlett Johansson as Samantha makes an excellent Alexa.   Also, on that scale, Blade Runner 2049 character Joi is another inspiration for me thinking about Alexa.

For both of these movies, the main characters have deep and meaningful relationships with their assistants / operating systems / fake humans created by technology.  I’m not going all the way to talking about the other characters in these movies because I think at the simplest version both Samantha and Joi show examples of how you could have a personal relationship with a voice interaction, if it had a level of intelligence in relating and making you feel heard and understood.

Alexa and Privacy

Yes, Alexa records everything you say after the invocation “Alexa”.  This is stored somewhere, as a user you can go in and listen to the audio files of those requests.  Amazon and Google also have all that data.  You can also delete that activity, which should delete it from the cloud.

This article from CBS says absolutely nothing but makes me have an emotional reaction about security.  Thanks, media.

We have fears about privacy that do not match up with our behaviors, which is probably nothing new to say about fear if I think about it.  People would give their social security number to a loyalty program for a coupon for free coffee. With the reality about how much information we already share on our phones, we live in a time where nothing is really all that private.  Unless you live off cash in your mattress, make calls at a pay phone, only use anonymous free internet, and generally live like Edward Snowden, everything you do could be public.  He puts his phone in the microwave when he has conversations (ensure microwave is turned off), because then people can’t use his phone to eavesdrop.

Think about that and tell me whether Alexa compromises privacy in a new and unique way.  Sorry Raven, your phone is worse.  But sometime soon Alexa will be valuable enough to us that we don’t care.