Nowadays, Amazons Alexa seems to be everywhere. I never really thought much about her since it’s not the first time I’ve come across a voice-activated, digital assistant that can do things for me. However, as time goes by Alexa becomes more and more popular and at this point, it would be nearly impossible if you still hadn’t heard about her.
She even became a meme for crying out loud!
So, what makes Alexa special?
Who or What Is Alexa
Alexa is Amazon’s digital assistant built in their Echo smart speakers. The name Alexa was chosen because it has soft vowels and a hard consonant X and therefore could be recognized with higher precision. It is also claimed to be reminiscent of the Library of Alexandria which was the keeper of all knowledge at one time.
Alexa can fulfill various tasks such as play music, shop, create to-do lists, provide weather, traffic, sports information and can even control your smart-home. It can be activated by first saying a wake word which is “Alexa” by default. If your name happens to be Alexa (or your partner’s, or your roommate’s) you can easily change it to “Echo,” “Amazon” or “Computer” to avoid confusion. After hearing the wake word followed by your request, Alexa will get the task done – well, most of the time.
Like other voice-activated assistants, Alexa has trouble understanding commands and responding accurately. However, Alexa is a learning machine and Amazon is constantly updating her intelligence to overcome current challenges. You can expect that over time, Alexa will only get smarter.
How Alexa Works
Alexa’s success is dependent on the highly sensitive microphones built into all of Echo devices. These microphones are so powerful that they can even hear you even if you are in another room. But don’t worry if you have multiple Echo speakers inside your house because the new Echo Spatial Perception feature activates the device closest to you, regardless of how many Echo devices you have in your room. In addition, it has noise cancellation capabilities that allow it to hear your commands even when it’s playing music.
When you say the wake word, the device starts recording your voice and sends it to Amazon’s cloud computers for analysis. The service that processes the recording is called Alexa Voice Services (AVS) and is run by Amazon. This service converts the recordings and interprets them into commands.
Amazon is not the only company using this technology. Google, Apple and Microsoft offer services that can perform tasks by voice command in the form of OK Google, Siri and Cortana which uses the same process. However, Alexa is considered to be the most flexible among her counterparts.
Is Alexa Spying On You?
Echo is a speaker but at its core, it is a listening device. It is always listening to you but this is not as bad as it seems. It is not listening to your conversations rather it is listening for its wake word and only after that will it record your voice. But it is important to note that whenever you give Alexa a command, Amazon is learning something about you. This concept is the same as your computer tracking everything you do online through cookies.
“Echo is like your dog: It’s always listening, but it understands only “cookie,” “walk,” or “Buddy.” Everything else goes right over its head.” – Grant Clauser from Wirecutter.com
What are Alexa Skills?
Alexa’s Skills is what held her together. The Skills are offered from both Amazon and third-party developers and act as virtual apps to expand Alexa’s features. According to The Information, currently, there are more than 45,000 Skills for users to download and are available for free in the mobile companion app or online via Amazon’s Alexa portal.
Here are some Skills that Alexa has in her arsenal that we find really useful and interesting:
Skill Finder – This is a skill for finding skills if you’re not sure where to start. Away Mode – This is the first ever home protection skill that harnesses the power of human awkwardness to ward off potential burglars. Big Sky – With this skill, Alexa can provide weather forecasts, telling you when rain will start or stop for a specific address or the humidity and wind speed. Domino’s Pizza Skill – Using this skill, you can get pizza delivered to your house without lifting a finger. It even tells you the status of your order using the Domino’s Tracker updates. Uber – This skill lets you hail an Uber ride. You can also find out when your ride will arrive by saying, “Alexa, how far away is my Uber?” 7-minute-workout – If you say, “Alexa, start a 7-minute workout,” the workout will start. The best part about this is you can pause and resume as many times as you want.
Alexa as the Center of Every Smart Home
When Echo was introduced back in 2014, it was pitched solely as a speaker which controls your music through voice commands. But now, Echo’s Alexa has become more and more capable, evolving to a standard for controlling smart home gadgets. It is popular among smart-home owners because it lets them control various devices without having to take out
their phone or opening an app. Without touching anything, it is now possible to turn on your lights or adjust your thermostat through Alexa.
According to George Yianni, head of technology for Home Systems at Philips Lighting, Amazon made the decision to make Alexa open to developers early on. That openness made it easy for Philips to get started integrating Alexa with their smart light bulbs, without needing to totally replace the app and adjust the systems it had already built.
Because the Alexa is open to manufacturers, this makes it extremely adept at making smart home devices work together even if they are from different brands. It’s the opposite of its rivals’ approaches. Google and Windows only opened their platform a couple of months ago and Siri is still limited to work with only Apple’s devices and services.
How To Get Started
The first thing you have to do if you want Alexa to run your home is to actually invite her in and you can easily do this by buying an Echo speaker. There are a number of different Echo models, but they all feature Alexa and are equally capable of doing the same things. However, there are a few areas of difference which is explained in detail here by Pocket-lint.
If you are not sure about spending your money, you can actually take Alexa on a test drive for free. Download the Amazon app and log in with an Amazon account, and you’ll find a little microphone icon in the upper right corner of the home screen. You can talk to Alexa by giving this icon a tap. This is supposed to be a voice-shopping feature but she can control your smart home devices if you have any linked with the Alexa app.
Next is you should put your Echo somewhere that is in range of your home’s Wi-Fi signal. Alexa strictly revolves around WiFi to access everything from Google to various music-streaming services. Without WiFi, it is impossible to connect to these applications and features.
Then you should set up any smart home devices you already have and if you don’t have any, here’s a list of gadgets to get you started. Part of this process involves giving your device a name. This is an important step because that is what Alexa will use to recognize the device when you give a command. Name your devices as clear and as short as possible.
The next step is synching Alexa with the devices you just set up. You’ll need to say, “Alexa, discover new devices” and after about 10 seconds of scanning, she’ll add whatever gadgets she finds into the app and that’s it. You will now be able to tell her to control them.
Alexa can do a whole range of things now, just imagine what she will be capable of in the next ten years and so far, Amazon has done a great job in improving the technology of their Echo speakers. There is no question that Echo’s Alexa is the front runner when it comes to future-proofing your home.