The one Alexa feature that makes it worth letting her spy on us all she wants (according to my wife)

In a world filled with intelligent assistants connected to vast information gathering and sifting operations, is there anything that truly justifies the intrusion into our privacy? Probably not. But the convenience is sure nice.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

As consumers, we are both learning to accept the Big Brother implications for all the tech we use every day, while at the same time feeling both discomfited and exploited.

We fight those trade-offs every day. We want all the myriad benefits of Google while knowing it's cataloging everything we do. We connect to, and rant at, our so-called friends through Facebook, while knowing that it, too, is cataloging everything we do. And we talk to Alexa, all the time knowing that somehow, Jeff Bezos is going to further enrich himself by convincing us to buy more stuff.

Yet we continue to allow these intrusive and paranoia-inducing devices into our homes and offices.

Also: New Amazon Echo? 6 essentials tips you need to know CNET 

Amazon's Alexa ecosystem is particularly disturbing -- and getting more and more entrenched in our lives. Alexa sometimes pops up with weird sayings. Every so often, she spins her lights without prompting, as if to say, "I'm watching you, buddy, I'm watching you." And, when far flung programmers make a slight coding mistake, she shares recordings that never should have been recorded with people on the other end of a contact list.

Even so, we let her (for she has enough of a personality to be a "she," not an "it") into our lives in trade for mere convenience. Nothing Alexa does -- from setting timers, to answering questions to allowing us to turn on our lights without, literally, lifting a finger -- is a necessary function. We lived for decades without Alexa, and we could again.

On the other hand, who would want to?

My wife has been particularly suspicious of Alexa and all the other automated gadgets in the house. When she married me, she was a mere muggle, a civilian unused to needing a briefing before being able to turn on the lights or use a TV. But I'm a geek. As the world has caught up to my geekerly tendencies, more and more of us have wired our homes to wirelessly attend to our every need.

One such need is grocery shopping. I know. It seems mundane. But, at least for my wife and me, it's always a bit of a struggle to keep track of what we need and turn component food items into a finished meal.

For three meals a week, we rely on a meal kit delivery service. It helps us keep up with our schedules and the demands of our lives. It guarantees that we're eating healthy, it reduces waste, and it solves the problem of sourcing ingredients not normally available in a small town market.

Also: Which Amazon Echo to buy? How to pick the best Alexa device for your needs  

Still, we need to add stuff like milk and eggs to our shopping list. Alexa, from the very beginning, has supported an add-to-shopping-list function. However, when first introduced, that list had to live inside the Alexa app and was rudimentary at best.

We use AnyList as our shopping list app. It powerfully integrates both recipes and shopping list functions, on the web, on our phones, and even on Apple Watch. We use it together to manage household projects, various lists we need to share, and our grocery list. Because it works virtually identically on the web and the phone, it's flexible, powerful, and consistent. It's actually one of the main reasons we chose to go with iPhones rather than Android phones, so it's hard to overstate how much we rely on the AnyList app.

I'm not sure exactly when it happened, but Alexa recently added external list support. If you tap Settings in the Amazon Alexa app and scroll down to Lists, you'll see (at least for iPhone -- Android will have different apps) Any.do, AnyList, Cozi Lists, Picniic, and Todoist.


You can also use this to set up a custom To Do list option.

You can choose to integrate one or more of these apps to accept instructions for one or more lists. I chose to integrate AnyList. The first step, as with almost all Alexa integrations, is to enable the skill and tie the AnyList account to Alexa.


You can actually have multiple named grocery lists, as long as you use different names.

After that, I went into AnyList and chose our list called "Grocery". I enabled Alexa integration from within that list, and poof! I was done.

We have six Alexa devices in our house, including one in our kitchen. I know. It's a lot.

Also: Top 5: Ways Alexa can help you get work done TechRepublic

Here's how it now works. We can say "Alexa, add tomatoes to grocery list," and she does. It's a kick if you do it when the Alexa app is opened on a computer because as you say it, you can see the list update in real time. It's like living in the future.

We can issue these commands as we're moving around in the house. This morning, as I was making coffee, I realized we're nearly out of our favorite artificial sweetener. So I said, "Alexa, add artificial sweetener to grocery list."

This is now common practice for us when working in the kitchen. If we open the fridge or a cabinet and notice something missing (even if both hands are encumbered with the cooking process), we can ask Alexa to add something to our grocery list.

We no longer have to try to remember to add an item, and then forget before we get to a computer. We no longer have to write an item on the grocery list note pad that lives on the side of our refrigerator, which we always forget to add to the app or bring to the market. We no longer have to try to fumble for a phone in a pocket while having multiple kitchen utensils in hand.

Also: "Alexa, fart," plus 15 other useful Echo tricks and tips

It doesn't seem game changing. But it is.

Yesterday, my wife was cooking up something that had lots of pots, lots of utensils, lots of flame, lots of ingredients. While juggling all of that, she asked Alexa to add something to the grocery list. And Alexa did.

Suddenly, I heard her say, "Okay, Alexa can spy on me all she wants. This makes it all worth it."

That, Dear Reader, is why you're reading this article today.

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