Alexa: The good, the bad, and the creepy
This month marks my tenth anniversary writing for ZDNet.
When I think about how much technological progress has been made since March 2008, and what kinds of gadgets and connectivity I had then compared to what I have at my disposal now, I am in awe.
Amazon Alexa, all the time
The very idea that I now have a voice interface to my entire home and that I have sensors everywhere collecting data in my house and on my person utterly blows my mind.
The Alexa intelligent assistant, whose brains actually reside in the cloud at Amazon Web Services to process speech collected by the always-on microphone inside the Amazon Echo smart speaker, is ready and waiting to gather this information. All the time.
Now, there are many people out there who have far more automated homes connected to Alexa than I do. ZDNet columnist David Gewirtz recently bragged to me that his Sleep Number bed can now talk to the cloud. I think he has an Echo in every room of his house.
I also have a lot of connected crap in my home, and I own three Echo devices and a Google Home. I'd be lying if I said I did not have an intimate relationship with them already.
'Mindy Konsumer' vs. Amazon Alexa
In 2011, I wrote a somewhat speculative first-person account of what it would be like to work from home in the year 2021. That's only three years from now, and I was thinking at the time that my technology predictions were something of a stretch.
I find it a bit scary now that the intelligent agent I depicted in that seven-year-old article is really not that much smarter than the Alexa we have running in our homes in 2018.
Do I own the fictional "Philips Saeco i7000 superautomatic" espresso machine powered by the "Apple Siri iHome Automation System" which is able to detect how many supplies it has on hand? No. I have a Rancilio Silvia, a basic Italian consumer machine with a microcontroller I've added to it to help stabilize the water boiler temperature. It's a simple mechanical design that has been around for about 20 years.
It requires that I operate it manually, which I still enjoy doing. But it is connected to a smart switch that is on a program to turn it on at 7am every morning and off after 7pm every evening. If I say, "Alexa, Espresso machine on," I can switch it on at any time, especially when I have company over during the evening and they expect me to make a few macchiatos.
Fully automated espresso machines that do everything except bring the cup of coffee to you really do exist now. And there is at least one on the market that uses RFID tags to monitor consumption and can automatically re-order new supplies.
Even though I utilize a local roaster for sourcing my beans, I certainly can use Alexa to re-order coffee if I am running low. The local Whole Foods or an Amazon distribution center will bring it right to the house, assuming I haven't already programmed the refills into Amazon's subscription services.
We are perhaps only a few years away from being able to buy robots that will be able to bring that cup of the coffee right to us and can totally replace my function as the home barista. Perhaps they will be super expensive and only wealthy people will be able to afford them -- but they will exist.
Many, but not all, of the light switches and bulbs in my home are connected to Alexa. My Jandy swimming pool/spa equipment is internet-connected, but it's not linked to Alexa yet. I'm pretty sure it could be with a simple controller upgrade and a few third-party hacks.
My previous-generation Sonos smart speakers are connected to Alexa. I'm not crazy about the command chaining I need to say in order to make it work, but it does work, mostly. The newer models are even better integrated and actually, have Alexa built into them.
Two of my three ceiling fans, made by Haiku, are connected to Alexa. I have two smart thermostats (a Nest Generation 2 and an Ecobee) and two air conditioning systems (one for the main zone of my house and one for a Mitsubishi mini-split in my master bedroom), and both are connected to Alexa.
My garage door is internet-connected. I'm pretty sure I can connect it to Alexa, but I am on the fence if I really want to do that. My alarm system is also Alexa-connected. We even recently installed a Ring internet-connected home security camera for the front door. It isn't connected to Alexa yet, but Amazon just bought the company, along with Blink, another home automation products firm, for billions of dollars.
Essentially, if any device has Wi-Fi or internet connectivity, and it has a fairly standard web services interface for use with a smartphone app, there's a good chance it can become connected to Alexa with very few product modifications or a simple firmware update. Most of the magic occurs in the cloud, where the primary integration point for these devices exists anyway.
The list of integration partners that are part of Amazon's Alexa ecosystem is growing exponentially. Their skills available include web services for informational- and entertainment-type things -- not just smart devices.
I could have all these minor integration nits and gaps dealt with if I upgraded a bunch of devices. But do I want my entire home Alexa integrated? Or do I still like doing certain things manually?
I think it depends on whether we classify certain tasks as mundane -- routine things versus the types of things we still take enjoyment in, such as pouring a perfect latte. I am planning on upgrading my espresso machine soon with some other planned home improvements, and it won't be a connected device.
I take pride in my coffee-making skills, and it's a ritual that I don't want to hand off to a machine.
Freaked out yet?
If all this smart integration is freaking you out, you can always ask Alexa to help you meditate so you can contemplate whatever remaining humanity and self-imposed manual processes are actually left in your life.
Sure, there is a certain creepy aspect to all this, especially when Alexa just randomly starts laughing at you. But isn't this what many of us have always wanted? To have robots at our beck and call, perhaps taking over the kind of tasks we don't want to bother our lives with anymore? Isn't this what Star Trek and The Jetsons taught us?
I actually don't have a problem with this situation. In fact, I think Amazon Alexa integration solves a key problem with home automation, which is the "one app to rule them all" issue.
Each of these smart devices has different app interfaces for my mobile devices, and they are separated out by vendor, not necessarily by function.
I have three different smart switch and lighting solutions -- WeMo, Haiku, and Philips Hue -- all of which have their own distinct apps. But Alexa makes them work seamlessly together, and I can group their commands by function and room. I've also encountered conditions when Alexa was able to make a device respond when the mobile app for the smart device lost connectivity.
This happens because mobile apps break when device operating systems upgrade -- like when I am testing beta builds of iOS on my iPhone X or Android builds on my Pixel 2. Alexa provides a stable integration point that I can always fall back on.
Some of these devices don't have manual switches, and they require some kind of connectivity, whether it is Wi-Fi or Bluetooth Low Energy/Z-Wave in order to work at all.
Getting close to perfection
Is this stuff perfect yet? I'm not sure if it ever really will be -- unless we make a conscious decision to buy into a completely certified and integrated IoT ecosystem with our future device purchases or some kind of API standardization effort takes place so that we don't have to think about it too much.
Read also: Alexa: The good, the bad, and the creepy
Is Mindy Konsumer's smart home of 2021 a reality? No, not yet. But we're getting very close. And despite the base fears and concerns I have about us all being constantly listened to and sensed by our smart assistants, I am looking forward to what's in store for us in the next 7 to 10 years.
How is your own smart home integration going? Talk Back and Let Me Know.
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