Amazon suddenly entered the social robot market last week. Amazon isn’t marketing Echo as a “social robot.” Instead, it’s positioning the device as a smart, voice-activated speaker that’s always connected to the Internet. Somewhat confusingly, the intelligent assistant within Echo is called Alexa and Alexa is the hot word that activates the Echo.
In the marketing video, Alexa is shown interacting with family members. Alexa is almost portrayed as an addition to the family. Dad can ask her to help when he doesn’t know the answer to his daughter’s homework question, sister can get Alexa to help poke fun, albeit unknowingly, at the pesky brother.
Right now Alexa’s capabilities seem fairly narrow. The assistant can play music from streaming services you’ve already subscribed to using a bluetooth connection to your smartphone or tablet. It can search Wikipedia and weather data sources to answer general questions or give weather updates. It can play news reports from certain radio stations. The marketing video shows Alexa telling jokes, but it doesn’t say what joke database is being used. It can track to do lists and shopping lists, but it’s not clear if these are Amazon proprietary lists or if Alexa can connect to your current list provider of choice.
Echo appears to provide similar functionality to Ubi. Ubi, however, is an open platform with well-documented APIs and a growing community of developers providing new capabilities for the device. The team at Ubi recently announced the launch of the Ubi Channel on IFTTT (If This then That), a service that let’s developers create functions for connected devices. It remains to be seen what APIs Amazon will publish for Echo and whether they intend to court an open developer community to program features that can augment the Echo and Alexa repertoire.
Connected intelligent assistant devices like Echo, Ubi, and the social robot Jibo are pioneers in a new product category. How successful will they be? It seems to me that their most powerful rival is the smartphone. Will I bother to ask my plugged-in intelligent assistant to convert tablespoons to cups, or will I just look it up on my smartphone or ask Siri or Google Now? Will I ask my plugged-in assistant about the weather, or just check my phone?
If these plugged-in, auditory-only devices can do things my smartphone does AND other things my phone can’t yet do, I might get hooked on using them. To do what my phone does, Alexa would need to read my texts as they come in and let me dictate texts to be sent. It would need to tell me when I get what it knows is an important email and read it to me. It would keep me up to date on social media posts that I care about. It would tell me if there’s a TV show or a movie or a concert going on that I’d like to watch but don’t know about. It would help me while away the time by reading me articles that I’m interested in or providing some sort of entertainment. Oh, and it would make the occasional phone call.
Now for the things I wish the plugged-in intelligent assistant would do that my smartphone doesn’t. It could ignore the hundreds of promotional emails I get each day, but tell me about the one or two that I’m actually interested in. It would remind me of things that I haven’t even thought to be reminded of, like the fact that my niece has a birthday coming up, that I need to schedule a service appointment for my car, and that I’m about to run out of olive oil. It would tell me if a good friend is feeling down and could use a pick me up call. It would tell interesting stories. It would let me know if the sweet potatoes I’m baking in the oven are done without me having to open the oven door. It would keep me connected with the world by telling me what other people on the planet are doing and thinking and maybe it would even connect me with them if I’m interested. Most importantly, it would subtly inform my friends and family about what I really want for Christmas!
Will Echo’s Alexa, Ubi, or Jibo be able to do any of these other important things that could tear me away from my smartphone? If so, I think they have a bright future.