Alexa – The AI that keeps improving

It’s fair to say the Amazon Echo ecosystem is growing rapidly, and improving quickly. Since I last wrote about it, there have been three new Echo devices released. The Amazon Echo, the Echo Plus and the Echo Show (which has a display and camera for video calling). I’m still rocking the original Amazon Echo Dots around the house. Even though these are older, the Alexa AI within them is improving too.

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Something that has been added recently is Alexa Calls. It essentially allows you to ‘ring’ up friends and relatives with Echo units. You can say ‘Alexa, call Mum’ and it will ring your Mum’s Echo unit. It essentially turns your Echo into a speaker phone. You can also ‘drop in’ to your other Alexa units around the house too, to listen in, or speak to family in other rooms. You could in theory use the Echo as a baby monitor.

Part of the Routine

You can now set up Routines within the Alexa App. For example if you say ‘Alexa, Good Morning’, you can configure a routine that can tell you the weather for today, your current commute time and news headlines for example. Or perhaps a routine where you say ‘Alexa, get ready for gaming’ and it will fire up your TV, Console, and Amp and then dim the lights. You can also set the routines to happen at a time. So at 7am you could make the lights in the bedroom fade up, and switch a kettle on. Each routine can have several steps.

Alexa, turn on the TV

The Amazon Echo has been able to control TVs and other things for a while with the assistance of a Harmony Hub or Harmony Remote. However the commands to make it work were a bit of a mouthful. “Alexa, tell Harmony to switch on the TV” or was it “Alexa, ask Harmony to turn on the TV”? It felt like you’d had an argument with Harmony and was asking Alexa to talk to them on your behalf. Thankfully now, the Harmony skill has had some refinement. You can simply say,  “Alexa, turn on the TV”, or “Alexa, turn on BBC One”, and Alexa will oblige.  If you have Sky Q or Sky + you can even say, “Alexa, Pause” or “Alexa, Fast Forward” and you it will do it. Instantly.

Of course you can do all this with a remote control. However, there’s something quite fun and magical about voice control. If I fancy a quick blast on the XBox after I’ve finished work, I can ask the Echo in the Office to turn on the XBox. By the time I’ve shut down my PC, and walked into the living room, the xBox is on, and ready to play.

The Echo with Alexa inside

The Echo with Alexa inside

Play music, everywhere

If you use the Amazon Prime music service you can make music play ‘everywhere’, or ‘upstairs’ or ‘downstairs’. It will play your music, perfectly synced across your chosen devices at the same time. It doesn’t work just yet for Spotify users, but apparently it is coming. I’m looking forward to this, we consume a lot of music in this house, it would be nice to have it streaming via the Echo devices.

It’s not quite there yet..

There are a few things that could be improved upon. Whilst it will give you an idea of your travel time to work, it can’t help you for other destinations. You just get told how far it is as the crow flies, but no timings. Hopefully there can be some improvements there. It would be nice if there were some kind of parental control embedded. There’s nothing stopping J from telling Alexa to turn on Cbeebies, or fire up something in Spotify. It would be awesome if it could recognise his voice, and require a grown up to confirm their choice. Or perhaps only allow their voice to activate commands during certain hours.




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