Alexa – Amazon’s Virtual Personal Assistant

Hello All, Today we are going to talk about Alexa. I know you guys are wondering who is Alexa or what is Alexa. Well the answer to that question is mentioned in the title itself. Alexa is a Virtual Personal Assistant developed by Amazon Lab126 (Subsidiary of Amazon) in November 2014. Alexa is named after the ancient library of Alexandria. You might have heard about Apple’s Virtual Assistant Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana and Google’s Google Now or Watson. Alexa is more or less similar to these Virtual Assistant. Alexa is voice-activated computing powered by Artificial Intelligence. You can either ask a question or give a command or task and get immediate results or response. It is voice activated, hence before asking a question or giving a command, we need to say the wake-work “Alexa” which is most commonly used, there are other wake-words, namely “Amazon” & “Echo”, while in Amazon App for Alexa on iOS or Android, the user needs to push a button to activate Alexa’s listening mode. Alexa can only interact and communicate in English and German Language.

The action or command or task Alexa can perform are known as Alexa Skill Set. The skills include weather updates, traffic updates, news, sports, change music, set alarms, set to-do list, set and alert reminder’s etc. Like all other virtual assistants, Alexa has its fair share of trouble understanding user commands and responding accurately. However, because it’s a cloud-based service, Amazon is continually updating Alexa’s intelligence to overcome some challenges. As machine learning becomes more sophisticated, Alexa is likely to become more intelligent in near future. Amazon’s Alexa delivers best experience on the Amazon’s Echo. However, with continuous development, Amazon has integrated the virtual assistance with the other home hubs such as Echo Dot and the Tap. Amazon’s Fire TV and Fire HD 8 tablet also supports Alexa. Amazon has also expanded the compatibility of Alexa to LG SmartThinQ hub, wearable Pebble Core, intercom known as Nucleus Anywhere and smartwatch called CoWatch.

Alexa Skills

The comparison makes it clear, Amazon Alexa is way too much ahead of its competitors. Let’s go over some of the most used skills available for Alexa and see how Alexa can help us daily.

1. Sleep and Relaxation Sounds

Sleep Sounds lets you play ambient sounds to help you sleep peacefully or block out unwanted noise at work or home. With over 80 high quality sounds to choose from, you’ll be able to sleep better, stay focused, study without interruption, relax quickly, meditate more effectively, and get your baby to go to sleep faster!

2. Tile

Tile, the world’s largest lost and found. Tile makes tiny Bluetooth trackers and a companion app that allow you to locate lost or misplaced items in seconds — like your phone, keys, and wallet. Compatible with Tile Mate, Tile Slim and Tile Original.

3. Thermostat Controller

Control your Nest thermostat using your Echo. By default, the unit used will be whatever the thermostat is set to, but if you specify the unit you can temporary change it.

4. Traffic

After you set your starting point and destination within the Alexa app under Traffic in the Settings menu, Alexa can tell you about the traffic conditions for your daily commute. Alexa provides the estimated duration and quickest route to take for your commute. Just ask, “Alexa, how is traffic?”

5. Weather

To get started, add your address in the Alexa app. Then, just ask Alexa “What’s the weather?” or “What’s the weather in [city, state or city, country]?” You can also ask about weather on a specific day or about inclement weather conditions. When you ask about the weather, a card opens in the Alexa app with a seven-day forecast for the requested location. Alexa uses AccuWeather for the latest weather information. This skill uses the device location set in the Alexa App settings.

6. Kayak

If you have a Kayak account, you can enable Alexa to help you plan a trip. This skill can track flights and check prices. You can even tell it your budget, and Kayak Explore will tell you where in the world you can go. To activate it, say “Alexa, ask Kayak where I can go for $500.”

7. Air Time

To check the airport security wait times, simply say, “Alexa, ask airport security for the wait time at LGA,” to find out how long the line is at LaGuardia Airport in New York City. You can also use a city name. The Airport Security skill will check the TSA’s public API for the last-reported wait times at the airport checkpoint.

8. Uber & Lyft

Uber and Lyft both have skills you can enable for Alexa. Once you’ve set up an account and have the payment options filled in, it’s as easy as saying, “Alexa, ask Uber to request a ride,” or “Alexa, ask Lyft how much a Lyft Plus from home to work costs.” The ride fare will be debited automatically from your account.

9. SMS With Molly

You have to complete a couple of steps to setup the SMS with the Molly skill. First, register at smswithmolly.com, and then enable the feature. But it lets you upload your favorite contacts, with unique first names. Then, you merely say, “Alexa, ask SMS with Molly to send ‘I’ll be late,’ to Lauren.”

10. Have I been pwned? for Alexa

Security professional Troy Hunt’s “Have I been pwned?” service can be assessed as an Alexa skill. It will check to see if you have an account that has been compromised in a data breach. To start, say, “Alexa, open Have I been pwned.” You have to spell out your email address or username each time to check, and then say “Done” or “Finished” before the search will begin. Remember: “Pwned” is pronounced “poned,” like “owned” with a “P.”

These are some skills that can come in handy, although there are many other skills which are commonly used. Check out the portal for Amazon Alexa skills.

Limitations

One of the biggest concerns raised by Alexa owner is the inability to comprehend multiple commands at any instance. For example, we can’t say “Alexa Turn on the Lights and Play Music”, instead Alexa expects “Alexa, Turn on the Lights” & “Alexa, Play music”, two separate commands. This becomes annoying especially trying to add multiple items to shopping list. For example, instead of saying “Alexa, add firecrackers and beer to my shopping list,” you have to say “Alexa, add firecrackers to my shopping list. Alexa, add beer to my shopping list.” If you’re creating a large shopping list, the process can get annoying, especially for other people in the room. And although one of the favorite uses of Echo is to ask random questions, Alexa isn’t Google. The system knows a lot, but what it can’t answer outweighs what it can. Many owners complained about the limited numbers of wake-words. We can change the wake-word but the options are limited to “Alexa” “Amazon” “Echo”. Owners can change the wake word for each Alexa device, but it gets confusing to remember which one responds to “Alexa” and which one responds to “Echo.”

The other major concern is regarding security and privacy. There have been concerns about the access Amazon has to the private conversations in the home and other non-verbal indications that can identify who is present in the home with non-stop audio pick-up from Alexa-enabled devices. Amazon responds to these concerns by stating that the devices only stream recordings from the user’s home when the ‘wake word’ activates the device. The device is technically capable of streaming voice recordings at all times, and in fact will always be listening to detect if a user has uttered the wake word. Amazon uses past voice recordings sent to the cloud service to improve response to future questions the user may pose. To address privacy concerns, the user can delete voice recordings that are currently associated with the user’s account, but doing so may degrade the user’s experience using search functions. To delete these recordings, the user can visit the Manage My Device page on Amazon.com or contact Amazon customer service.

Alexa uses an address stored in the companion app when it needs a location. Amazon and third-party apps and websites use location information to provide location-based services and store information to provide voice services, the Maps app, Find Your Device, and to monitor the performance and accuracy of location services. For example, Echo voice services use the user’s location to respond to the user’s requests for nearby restaurants or stores. Similarly, Alexa uses the user’s location to process the user’s mapping-related requests and improve the Maps experience. All information collected is subject to the Amazon.com Privacy Notice.

Amazon retains digital recordings of users’ audio spoken after the “wake word,” and while the audio recordings are subject to demands by law enforcement, government agents, and other entities via subpoena, Amazon publishes some information about the warrants it receives, the subpoenas it receives, and some warrantless demands it receives, allowing customers some indication as to the percentage of illegal demands for customer information it receives.

Well That’s it for today. I’ve laid down the pro’s and con’s. I’ll let you guys decides whether it is safe to use Amazon Alexa or not, whether the pro’s outweigh the con’s or not. Let me know what you guys think about it. I’m excited to see how Alexa expands or develops and also what the competitors innovate in order to stay in race with Alexa. I’ll be back soon with some new technology, innovation until then take care.

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