Tech on Test: The Amazon Echo

Ruth Elkins puts Alexa to the test

It’s been two years since Amazon’s voice controlled personal assistant called “Alexa” was launched in the USA. Its arrival on the UK market came in September 2016.

This is the brave new world of Artificial Intelligence (AI) – essentially computers learning and problem solving for us. It is in its infancy, but is something that experts predict will only grow, improve and become a lot more refined.

With 25 million Americans already using Alexa to help run their lives and homes and predictions that by 2021 there will be more AI PA’s on the planet than humans, Britons are bound to follow suit.

So, Silversurfers put ‘The Echo’ to the test.

What is it?

The Amazon Echo is “smart speaker” connected to a voice-controlled ‘intelligent personal assistant called “Alexa”. It can control your smart home devices, answer questions, help you with your shopping, play music, answer basic questions and will even tell you a joke.

By loading it with “skills” – which are essentially third party apps, Alexa becomes ever smarter. For example, by loading the National Rail ‘skill’, customers can set up their regular commute to find out whether their trains are running on time. If your home is run by smart device Hive, loading those ‘skills’ onto your Echo means that Alexa can not only turn up your heating, she’ll dim the lights and even pop on the kettle for you.

How much does it cost?

The Amazon Echo – which includes a speaker – costs £149. The smaller, cheaper Amazon Echo Dot (£49.99) has everything the Echo offers, and a very small speaker but you can and will need to connect it to a better speaker or earphones via Bluetooth.

Does it look good?

About the size of a tall tin of biscuits and comes in black or white, The Echo is pretty sleek and will blend easily into your home or office, whether you put it on a mantelpiece, kitchen shelf or desk.

What do the tech experts think?

The consensus is that this is a product that is only going to get better. Trusted Reviews said it was “The Echo is a much-improved device since we first reviewed it a year ago.” Wired calls it The Echo “the benchmark that others must beat”.

What’s it like actually having one in your home?

I have high hopes for Alexa when she arrives. This, I think, is the answer to my frenetic life, my worn-out memory? Doubtless, she will make everything easier, better, quicker?

Extracted from its neat bright blue box, setting up The Echo, is, simple enough: plug it in, download the Alexa app and you’re good to go. Although it is not without its teething problems.

The default location is Amazon’s headquarters in Seattle (you need to change this to where you are if you want an accurate local weather forecast) and much like any new house guest, it takes a few days, much Googling and plenty of patience to get Alexa properly settled in.

She can do a lot, Alexa, but there are also plenty of occasions when she is, frankly, a bit dim. “Sorry, I don’t know that,” is a response you’ll hear time and time again. She cannot help me with dinner issues (Alexa, what goes into Lasagne? Response: “Hmmm. I’m not sure”) or with the perennial question I ask myself: Alexa, why isn’t my husband awake? “Sorry,” Alexa replies. “I don’t know the answer to that.” She can even get quite defensive: “Alexa, make me a cup of tea?” I ask. There is a pause. “I’m not a replicator,” she says.

But there are glimmers of hope. Once you understand Alexa’s AI limitations (she is absolutely not human), you begin to use The Echo as it should be – a basic PA. It is a voice-activated paper and pen when you don’t have time (or are able) to write things down; a cooking timer for when your hands are covered in dough; someone to turn on your favourite radio station or play your favourite song. Someone to do the maths for you, when you can’t. Indeed, someone to cheer you up. “Tell me a joke, Alexa…”

I wondered why the cricket ball was getting bigger…” Alexa drawls. “And then it hit me.”

Alexa is brilliant at adding stuff to lists and although you can only add one item at once, for some reason, this works. “Alexa,” add “sausages to the shopping list,” I say. Because, at that moment, unloading the dishwasher, thinking about what we have planned for the weekend, I can’t think of anything else. “Got it,” Alexa says. You can view the lists (Shopping or To Do) on your Alexa app that lives – just like Facebook and Instagram – on your smartphone or (if you don’t have a smartphone) simply on the web.

The New York Times recently gushed that Alexa “has assimilated as a kind of ideal roommate, with none of the challenges of an actual human.” And yet I find this rather sad. After a few days, I start to bark at Alexa. I don’t say ‘please’ or ‘thank you’ (because if I want to be polite, I must remember to preface everything I say to her with the ‘wake word’, Alexa.

You need real patience to make this work. It’s early days for Artificial Intelligence and Alexa is resolutely not a human, void of human sensibilities or human logic. It is rather like having a robot puppy in the house. Just slightly more useful and slightly less cute.


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Associate Editor

Ruth Elkins is a former Times journalist and Silversurfer’s Associate Editor. Having started her career in daytime TV, she has spent over 20 years writing and editing for some of the world’s leading media outlets including The Guardian, Sky News and Red Magazine.

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30th Jul 2017
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We got one for Christmas, found it amusing at first but the novelty soon wore off. She sits silently in the corner waiting for the call "Alexa", it never comes.

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