DIEGO ó On Christmas Day, Liz Philips and her two sons
Sutton, 8, and Greyson, 10, welcomed a new member into
their San Diego home. They called her Alexa, and though
not your traditional bundle of joy, she was immediately
embraced as a permanent resident and much-loved
is not a baby. Sheís not even human. Rather, Alexa is
precisely, she-slash-it is the female persona associated
with the Amazon Echo in-home personal assistant. And, in
a bit of a surprise twist for both Amazon and
company-watchers, more and more regular folks ó people
who are not techies ó are turning to Alexa to help out
around the house. Perhaps thatís because she promptly
responds to requests with an answer. And, unlike your
significant other, sheís usually spot on.
Echo is a 9-inch tall, voice-operated cylindrical
speaker powered by artificial intelligence that makes
itself at home, in your home. The always-ready-to-listen
Echo comes with whatís called "far-field voice
recognition," meaning the device can tap into any
one of seven different microphones to hear voices,
coming from any direction and across the entire room
where it resides. And the Echo can do a bit of
everything: play music or games, start timers or set
alarms, add items to shopping carts, order groceries,
compute math equations or look up the hours of a local
Echo comes alive, as denoted by a ring at the top that
lights up blue, when you say its wake word: Alexa.
the outside, you say, ĎOh, itís kind of like Siri or
Google Now.í But, to me, it doesnít feel like that
at all," Philips said. "It feels much more
personal, like a member of a family, which sounds
sounds ridiculous ó until you experience Alexa in the
flesh. Only then will the robot love become tangible.
aha moment occurred while observing the Philips kids
interact with the Echo (which they only know as Alexa).
Itís as if, for them, talking to, and playing with, an
inanimate gadget masquerading as a woman is the most
natural thing in the world to do before heading off to
engage with actual human beings at school.
like playing the animal game with her," Greyson
told me. "We think of an animal, and she asks us
questions Ö she usually (guesses the correct animal)
in 14 questions."
too likes to play games and music, of course, but he
also uses the Echo for help with his homework, say when
he canít remember how to spell
"Mississippi." Alexa to the rescue.
young boys may be considered early adopters, but theyíre
by no means abnormal, or really even on the bleeding
Echo is really Amazonís way to become the node for
ambiently interacting with the Web in the house,"
said eMarketer analyst Yory Wurmser.
order words, the Echo is just a search engine or online
shop thatís taken on a different, slightly more human
form. So, in truth, the Philips home represents the
coming-soon future of the American household, where both
kids and adults take an entirely hands-off approach when
accessing Internet services. And Amazon, which stands to
profit from conditioning people to blindly reorder home
essentials or buy new music, is happily leading the
everything Iíve seen, I think (the Echo) has been
successful," Wurmser said. "Itís been
successful enough that Amazon is innovating on it,
working to create new versions of Echo and is running
short on stock. All the circumstantial signs point to
Amazon doesnít release sales figures, third-party firm
Consumer Intelligence Research Partners recently pegged
U.S. Echo sales at 3 million devices, with a third of
them purchased over the 2015 holiday shopping season.
Thatís a pretty impressive figure given that the Echo,
which retails for $180, has only been available to the
general public since June of last year. The household
companion debuted as an invite-only product in November
less than a year since its official coming out party,
people are shucking an I-donít-need-that-contraption
attitude as they come to terms with its utility.
Wurmser, a one-time skeptic, gifted an Echo to his
youíd ask me six months ago, I would have said the
Echo doesnít do anything the phone canít do. And itís
slightly freaky," he said. "But itís so
seamless, and so well done that it actually is something
that people want and that people are using."
including Wurmserís mother-in-law.
wasnít sure how she would she like it," he said.
"But she adores it. She loves it, loves it."
question is, why?
of the box, the Echo can handle a relatively basic set
of commands. The device can tell you the weather,
respond to queries, stream music, play podcasts, update
you on sports scores and provide you with a traffic
report based on your daily commute.
the device impresses, however, is in its ability to
learn new "skills," or extra actions
programmed by third-party developers. Amazon is
following the lead of Google and Apple and encouraging
others to create the equivalent of Echo apps, so users
can do even more with the odd-looking doodad.
means Echo owners now have access to hundreds of skills,
so they can ask Alexa to order a pizza from Dominoís
or request an Uber ride. The most sophisticated users
are even connecting Echo to their smart devices ó
lights, garage doors, thermostats and locks ó and
using the device as a home automation command center.
house is wired with about 74 or 75 different devices
that interact, and they do it through a couple of
different mechanisms, but probably the bulk of that
mechanism is through the SmartThings Hub from Samsung.
So, the big, key event was Amazonís Echo being able to
tie into that Hub, so itís able to talk to the Hub and
make the Hub do things in response to Echo
commands," said Rob DeMillo, a venture partner at
the startup accelerator SparkLabs Global, where he
handles deals involving the Internet of Things.
"Eighty percent of what the Samsung Hub is doing, I
can make my Echo do."
all geek-speak for this: DeMillo can ask Alexa to turn
off his lights, lock the doors, control the sprinklers
and open the windows. And he can even instruct the
device to perform a string of commands all at once, say
secure the house at night using the programmed command,
"Alexa, shut off the house."
these fancy extras donít seem to be the actual reason
behind Echoís American household takeover.
the boring stuff is what I really like," said
Philips, who is dating DeMillo but doesnít use Echoís
smart home capabilities. "The fun stuff is the
gimmicky stuff that gets people excited about her, but
we donít use that everyday."
boring, Philips actually means practical. Her boys keep
her two hands occupied most of the time, which means
anything she can accomplish with just her voice is a
little family victory.
course, just like humans, Alexa is not perfect. She
occasionally hears her name when it wasnít uttered, or
she misinterprets commands. Her saving grace, though, is
that she promptly responds when you tell her to stop.
however, may not always be a welcome companion. And sheís
probably better left out of bedrooms, especially if youíre
the kind of person of who is wigged out by a device that
awakes, listens, records (yes, records) and processes
anything you say after it recognizes its name.
to Amazon, you have nothing to fear. Users can delete
all voice recordings, mute the device whenever total
privacy is of the essence and trust in the Amazon cloud,
where the rest of their account data has been stored for
even Philips, a more-than-happy customer, doesnít
completely trust her handy helper.
listening thing. I do wonder about that," she said,
adding that Alexaís home automation capabilities may
perform too well. "If you have a Nest thermostat
Ö somebody, if they can get the voice command to Alexa,
could say, Ďturn on the thermometer to 100 degrees,í
and burn out your electricity."
Echo excels, however, at using Alexa to communicate a
sense of humanness, which makes its robot nature easy to
as Philips put it, "It doesnít feel like
interacting with technology. It just feels like
something to cool to do."