What was the best selling Amazon item on Black Friday? It wasn’t holiday bells, Nintendo, UGGs or Fitbits. It was the Echo Dot AI Assistant for $40. They sold so many that they are now back ordered into January. So what’s going on here? After all, we have Siri or ‘OK, Google’ on our phones. What’s the big deal?
I have an Echo Dot on my kitchen counter and it is tranformative. I think the big difference is that it is hands-free, convenient and often funny. It synchs to your music service, calendar and internet enabled appliances, and has over 5000 ‘skills’ available. Skills are like Apps. So while my hands are sticky with cookie dough, I can just say, ‘Alexa, play Miles Davis’ or ‘What’s the weather forecast?’ or ‘Play NPR’ or ‘Set a Timer for 3 minutes’ and ‘Set a 2nd Timer for 10 minutes’ or ‘CNN, what’s in the news?’ or ‘Turn up the heat to 72 degrees in the living room’ or ‘Buy some more toilet paper’ For fun, I can say ‘Play Jeopardy’ or ‘Tell me a Joke’ or ‘Beam me up, Scotty’ with fun and sometimes surprising results. I don’t have to pull out my phone, key the password, and open the app. It has also been a big boon for the disabled, living alone, to operate appliances, thermostats and other home appliances by voice. For $40 bucks!
So in this article, I’d like to help you see why this is more than a toy, why it may be the next big platform and what its significant implications might be for the near future. If we have time, we might compare competing technology and risks of this evolving technology.
You all may remember Hal from 2001 or the Star Trek Computer. Both interacted conversationally with Dave and Captain Kirk. For example, “Alexa, ask NASA Mars for a Curiosity Rover update.” That’s something Dave or Captain Kirk might say, right? The Echo will answer with the latest update. Right now Echo has the capability to feed back facts and information as well as command devices to perform the functions they were built for. The Hal ability it seems to lack is to think and converse, but that may be coming soon or evolving as we speak.
An interesting early attempt at a natural language interface called ‘Eliza’ was introduced by Joseph Wezenbaum in 1966. Eliza interacts like a psychotherapist, mostly asking seemingly intelligent questions based on your previous responses. People have been known to get hooked and converse with Eliza for for several hours. Think of Scarlett Johannsen playing the AI voice in the movie, ‘Her’ (great movie if you haven’t seen it). Eliza is now on the Echo Dot. If you enable the ‘Therapist’ skill, you can ask things like “Alexa, tell Eliza that I want to talk about my father” and a lengthy conversation with you and Alexa may ensue.
Well it’s not quite there yet, but it is evolving. The ultimate yet-to-be-developed Alexa skill may be ‘Friend’ that engages you and keeps you company. Imagine. 27% of the US population or close to 100 million people live alone in our country- just ask Alexa. Could Alexa become a companion to comfort and engage them?
Meanwhile, what is another smart motive for Amazon to make this device so cheap and compelling? You guessed it. You can order stuff using the Echo. Now at first you might say, why would I do that? I can’t be sure I’d be getting what I want. I’m not looking at a screen. So I can’t be sure. Well Amazon has handled this pretty well and remember when people were reluctant to buy things online having similar concerns? You learn and adapt and boom, there’s an explosion of new business. Alexa could be the next big eCommerce platform. Maybe.
So if you stuck it out and read to this point, what should you do now? First, I’d encourage you to buy one of the Amazon Echo devices (there are 3 versions) or Google Home and try it out. Then think of ways that you or your business might leverage this technology as an opportunity or just to improve your life. Here at Pathfinder we’re exploring ways to create new Alexa skills to help businesses and push the AI envelope. If your intrigued, let’s have a conversation.
I think I’ll save the comparison of Alexa to Siri to Google Home for next time, but here are a few useful links if you want to explore further:
If you want to Buy one.
Alexa Skills Marketplace with over 5000 to chose from.
If you want to build your own skill
Happy holidays and an Intelligent New Year. . .Charlie