“Hello. How may I help?”.
That’s what the promise of what I hoped was to be a smooth and user friendly home automation setup sounded like. I sat mesmerized by the spinning blue ring on my new Amazon Echo Dot as I peppered it with tasks and questions. It wasn’t long before the novelty of “Tell me an interesting fact.” wore off and responses of “I’m not quite sure how to help you with that.” became more frequent. Alexa, where did we go wrong? I guess we just didn’t understand each other, I didn’t RTFM and you just didn’t interface well with others. I guess what I’m trying to say is it was you, not me. Bye the way, I’m leaving you for Siri. Wait a minute! Let’s rewind a bit.
I jumped onto the Amazon Echo and Alexa bandwagon before the Dot was available in Canada and coming from an Industrial Automation, Data Collection and now an IIoT background it seemed like the next logical progression. It was also a good fit with my interest in AI, VR, and of course my years of misuse of Siri.
So why not jump in with Apple’s HomePod and not stray from the safety of my little Apple ecosystem? Well at the time experimenting with a $50 Echo Dot off Kijiji vs loosing the use of a ‘spare’ iPhone just made sense. A thorough inventory of all my Apple gear ended quickly with me choosing to buy a Dot rather than re-purposing an iPhone or iPad worth 10 times the price. I also wanted to dive deeper into Amazon’s offerings so again, Echo seemed to be the logical choice. The jury is still out.
Amazon’s Alexa Echo Dot really is a nice looking piece of kit and can easily be tucked away discretely while still being able to hear voice commands and respond from reasonably far away.
For a little plastic hockey puck that lights up like a TRON data disk it’s kinda hard to knock the aesthetics or build quality. It’s simple, clean, has blue flashing lights and seems durable enough (if you don’t actually try using it as a puck) and it also has some heft. I like strong and lightweight gadgets but there is still a comfort in a piece of tech that’s got some weight to it, especially when it appears to be all plastic. I still find it amusing that the Dot looks much more like an Apple designed product than Apple’s own HomePod does. Unfortunately the HomePod really looks more like an oversized spool of yarn than anything techie or stylish.
One of the things that really attracted me to Alexa and Echo was the promise of 10,000 skills and how there had to be dozens that would make my entrepreneurial and organizationally challenged lifestyle a seamless and effortless planning and production experience.
To be fair the Echo is a pretty handy little device. It is able to hear and interpret your commands from across the room and even in another room but works best if you are close by. It also seems dead easy to setup right out of the box and once you have it working you can ask all kinds of important questions like what’s the weather, what are the latest sports scores and what’s the time. Set-up, however, requires connecting it to the internet via WiFi and some basic configuration after downloading and installing the Alexa App.
This is where the novelty meets the cost-benefit argument. I hate this stage and here’s why. Invariably, and such is the case with Echo and all of its competitors, getting access to all of the good and premium stuff involves more compatible and smart hardware and downloading and configuring more ‘skills’. Now let me just say that with over 10,000 skills available you will soon find out, as I did, that finding useful skills is very much a needle in a haystack exercise. What someone needs to do is write a skill to help search and sort thoughtfully tagged skills. Good luck with that because to truly extend the functionality and usefulness of something like Echo you also need to start connecting it to other smart devices, which requires more smart hubs, bridges, more time, more money and finally your blood, sweat and tears – and device and protocol specific skills. Gotcha!
You want voice controlled lights? Buy the Philips Hue Starter kit with a bridge and a few smart bulbs in white or color ambiance with 16 million colours and then roll up your sleeves. You will need to set-up and configure your Hue network using Philips own bridge, then choose labels or names for all of your bulbs, assign them to rooms and groups and even create scenes like a house party or a soothing sunset. After you get that working from push buttons on your smartphone it’s time to teach Alexa how to control them for you (no, we haven’t even started to link Hue to Alexa voice control yet).
Oh, and then you need to remember the activation phrases for each lighting variation you created. Start with an easy win – “Alexa, turn on all Hue lights”. There it is. Dead easy. Every Hue light turns on like magic, eventually. Yes, there can sometimes be a 3-4 second wait before your request makes the round-trip from your mouth to Echo to the cloud and back to Echo which then signals your Hue bridge to tell all your connected Hue lights to turn off. It does this using the control string it just received from the cloud (more on how this works later in another post). Simple, fast, convenient, right? I thought so too until I found myself constantly walking into my dark kitchen while Alexa was casually sending my request to turn on the lights around the world a few dozen times before the Hue light over my stove comes on. Are we done yet? Not even close.
Me: “Alexa, turn on My Desk Light”
Alexa: … ‘A few things share that name, which one did you want?’
Me: “My Desk Light”
Alexa: … ‘OK’ … and on goes the light.
WTF? I said My Desk Light, twice, so how did repeating it become necessary when the only other similar name is “Kids Desk Light”. This is where I must go back and RTFM, get a pen and paper (remember those?) and start to plan out logical, unique and easy to remember name and phrase combinations so that I don’t need to argue with Alexa every time I want a specific light controlled. Personal assistants with attitude seems to be the current stage of development. I’m pretty sure the Alexa core AI was based on a synaptic mapping experiment using some high-strung cat. Wait, was that redundant?
Truth be told Alexa and Echo do a very good job with uncomplicated tasks like “Alexa, turn on all lights” or “Alexa, what’s the weather in Mississauga, Canada?” – be specific when localization isn’t set properly.
Got your super hero cape on yet? Next you will want to teach Alexa some cool things like changing light colours and setting up an automated lighting schedule. After that you will want to add your streaming music service and some news briefing services, maybe link your Nest thermostat. At this point maybe you should just take a break and try asking “Alexa, tell me a joke”. Yes it may be lame, as are the jokes, but that’s a skill that’s also built-in, meaning you are done programming and configuring … for now.
Now here is one of my main concerns regarding personal always-on assistants like Alexa and Siri and also some gaming consoles like Microsoft Xbox One and Sony PlayStation when equipped with the PlayStation Camera … Just what are these things really listening to? I call BS on the corporate stance that these devices only listen for their specific ‘Wake Word’ and never processes or relays any data to The Mother Ship unless properly triggered. But maybe that’s just my own paranoia, or is it?
There seems to be a lot of verbal variations and mysterious RF and ambient noise which will actually yet unintentionally spoof or trigger the device as if the wake word had been used. No song lyrics, no background conversation, just a sudden activation, that spinning blue light and then off it goes with nary an explanation. Sometimes it will seemingly grab a phrase it hears from the TV and try offering up Bing search results. I have been watching TV and Alexa, close by and now and with an activation word of ‘Echo’ seems to randomly turn itself on whenever the hell it likes. The blue ring starts cycling though Echo doesn’t always speak. Sometimes I can rewind the TV program and pick out what may have been the phrase or intonation that caused the activation (thanks Rogers PVR and Netflix / AppleTV) but more often than not there is nothing, n-o-t-h-i-n-g that remotely translates to or sounds like ‘Echo’. My point here is these devices only do quick parsing and packaging of spoken commands but the bulk of the AI and processing is done in the cloud, that means everything you ask it to do and possibly a lot of what you don’t is getting pushed up to the cloud and back, in the wild, encrypted but it gets logged somewhere and since it is a learning system it gets recorded and rules and actions associated with every transaction.
Have at it and be sure to check back for more tips, tricks, hacks, cracks, rants and band-aides and remember, just breathe … it ain’t rocket science 😉
One more thing – I am no conspiracy theorist (I just don’t have the time) but how much of this voice control traffic is also getting routed through that colossal complex affectionately called Bumblehive, or as it is officially known, the Intelligence Community Comprehensive National Cybersecurity Initiative Data Center? You know the one at Camp Williams near Bluffdale, Utah. It was completed in May 2014 at a cost of $1.5 billion with an estimated $2 billion more for equipment and maintenance. It includes 20 buildings spanning over 1 million square feet and includes everything from a water treatment center and electric substation to at least 60 emergency diesel generators.
Publically, its purpose is to support the Comprehensive National Cybersecurity Initiative whatever the hell that is but I think it’s just another name for Big Brother. Whatever you decide to think, they likely already know.
“The data center is alleged to be able to process “all forms of communication, including the complete contents of private emails, cell phone calls, and Internet searches, as well as all types of personal data trails—parking receipts, travel itineraries, bookstore purchases, and other digital ‘pocket litter’.” says Wikipedia
What about my personal privacy you say? Forget about it. Truth be told you have none. Obvious profiling can be seen every day with the likes of Netflix and Apple. iTunes and the App Store profiles me based on every song I preview, listen to or purchase. They know my movie preferences better than I do based on my favourites, watched and wish lists, they log every title I click on and then they mix it with everyone elses data stream like Social Media, phone and chat records, my trips and detailed geo-location data from my smartphone, and an endless stream of other data. Feeling chills yet? Now stop and think about everywhere you have been online, ever, whether you meant to be there or got automatically re-directed. Think of every person, place or thing you have ever searched for online, yes everything, and consider the likely fact that it is recorded somewhere and makes up part of your frighteningly detailed personality profile and no, you can’t have a copy because they say it doesn’t exist. So let me circle back to my initial point and ask you to simply consider for a moment, what are the chances that every data stream from these devices is also being routed through the Bumblehives of the world?
“Hey Siri, can you keep a secret?”