Alexa tricks: From helpful to amusing, here are 25 things to ask your assistant

Amazon's amazing Alexa AI assistant keeps getting smarter and smarter. These 25 tricks make her even more useful.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

Amazon's Alexa was all over CES this month. Vendors are baking Alexa into everything from cars to refrigerators. Here at Camp David, Alexa controls more than 25 lights, the lighting array we use for work management, and our entertainment center.

One of the things that's most exciting about Amazon's AI companion is that she (yes, she's a "she," not an "it" in our minds) constantly seems to be able to do new things, so we constantly discover new capabilities. In this column, I'm going to present to you a list of 25 handy Alexa tricks I've started to use.

Welcome to the New Year

1) Alexa, sing Auld Lang Syne. Since we're kicking off this list right at the beginning of the year, this is an appropriate place to start. Note that the query contains the word "sing," not "play." Try it. You'll see what I mean.

2) Alexa, what are your New Year's resolutions? Alexa has quite a few. Feel free to ask her a few times.

People-related tricks

3) Alexa, how old is Anthony Hopkins? You can ask Alexa the age of just about any relatively famous person and Alexa will tell you his or her age.

4) Alexa, when was Harrison Ford born? You can, of course, do the math yourself. But you can also ask Alexa for the birth year of most well-known people

5) Alexa, when did Shakespeare live? This trick works well with historical figures, allowing you quickly determine the era in which someone lived.

6) Alexa, who is the governor of Florida? This trick works with most major political figures --from US governors and senators to big city mayors, as well as officials from other nations, like the Prime Minister of the UK.

7) Alexa, how old is she? After Alexa answers "The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom is Theresa May," you can ask a follow up question. Follow-ups (otherwise known as context-sensitive questions) work with only a few things, but it begins to give Alexa the feel of a conversationalist. This is a big element in AI development, so watch as this becomes more comprehensive and natural.

8) Alexa, who are the stars in the movie Rogue One? A corollary to this is "Alexa, who are the stars in the TV show Westworld?" Alexa is capable of letting you know players in movies and TV shows, but so far, you must provide context like "in the movie..." and "in the TV show..."

Invasion of the helper robots

9) Alexa, who is the director of the movie Westworld?This capability isn't limited to stars and directors. I also asked who was the cinematographer and writer of Rogue One, and I got workable answers.

Time and date-related tricks

10) Alexa, what time is it in Tokyo? Pick any major city. If the city is over the date line, Alexa will also tell you what day it is in that city.

11) Alexa, what time is it in UTC? Many of us need to work off of the Coordinated Universal Time, especially when managing servers and regulated clocks and time systems. Alexa can easily give you the UTC time.

12) Alexa, what day of the week does Christmas fall on? If you want to know what day your favorite holiday falls on (yes, I know, many in the US fall on Mondays), Alexa can help.

13) Alexa, when is Groundhog Day? If you just want to know the date of a holiday, all you need do is ask.

14) Alexa, how many days until Jan. 20, 2021? Alexa provide days between dates. It's a simple programming exercise, but knowing you can ask Alexa that on any given day may help you better cope with your future plans.

Food, money, and shopping

15) Alexa, how many dollars is 23 euros? Alexa does many different currency conversions. Just be careful: currency values change, and it's not clear how up-to-date Alexa is. If you're just trying to ballpark a price, it's good. But if you're doing a major international transaction, it's best to check with your bank.

16) Alexa, how late is Publix open? Here in Florida, Publix is one of our big supermarkets. But you can ask Alexa about the hours of operation for almost any major store in your area.

17) Alexa what is the phone number for Home Depot? In this case, Alexa picks what it thinks is the nearest store in a chain and reports that number. Generally, she's been right.

18) Alexa, how many calories in a chicken breast? Be forewarned. Alexa seems a lot more like the sometimes loquacious Lt. Commander Data in her answer on this one. But you can ask about generic things, or even brand-name items, like "Alexa, how many calories in a Big Mac?"

19) Alexa, how many ounces in a Big Mac? If Alexa doesn't answer the calories question completely (with the Big Mac, she answered 73 calories per ounce), you can ask Alexa the number of ounces as well. Alexa is very good with weights and measures, so you can also ask her to convert between, say, cups and liters.

Other interesting tricks

20) Alexa, what is the 20th Amendment? Alexa has a treasure trove of interesting facts she can recite. It's hit or miss, though. For example, Alexa can answer "What is Article One of the United States Constitution," but she can't answer "Alexa, what is Article One, Section Nine of the United States Constitution?"

You just have to ask and see what she tells you. But here's a hint: Get specific. When I asked "... of the Constitution," she didn't have an answer. But when I asked "... of the United States Constitution," she responded with good information.

21) Alexa, what is a random number between 3 and 44? This is another fun question that takes its answer right out of the standard programming libraries.

22) Alexa, play Reveille. So, here's how this went down. "Alexa, set volume to 8. Alexa, turn on bedroom lights. Alexa, play Reveille." I thought it was amusing. Then I thought my wife wouldn't speak to me for a month. But if you have kids...

23) Alexa, spell reveille. That's right. You can ask Alexa to spell many words. But, you have to pronounce what you're asking for with care. For example, if you ask, "Alexa, spell emolument," and you don't clearly enunciate the word, Alexa may respond with the spelling for "monument."

24) Alexa, tell me something interesting. This is a great query to ask Alexa if you're just a little bit bored. Go ahead, try it out.

25) Alexa, what new features do you have? Amazon provides a regular mailing to Alexa owners on new features, but you can just ask Alexa as well.

One of these days, Alexa is going to answer one of my requests with, "I'm sorry, Dave, I can't do that." As you can imagine, that worries me. But, I'll tell you this: If your name is Andrew and Alexa responds, "I'm sorry Andrew, I can't do that," (or whatever your name is), then you'll really know it's time to get in your car (as long as it's not Alexa-powered) and drive far, far away.

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