By Sinead Gray / 13-10-2016
After a long wait Amazon’s voice-controlled Echo speaker has arrived in the UK (only 2 years after the US). I was one of the lucky (keen) people to get my hands on one on release day. Here are my thoughts on our first week together.
What is Alexa?
Alexa is a cylindrical speaker, available in black or white that acts as an ‘intelligent personal assistant’. Responding to voice commands, Alexa can search the internet, play music, provide weather reports and control smart-home devices. A bit like Siri but at least one million times better.
- Music! I will never have to arduously search for a song by typing words ever again. “Alexa, play Britney” and Britney plays. “Alexa, play Spotify’s Throwback Thursday playlist” - you get the idea.
- Shopping – Alexa can help you burn through your hard-earned cash more easily than ever. On the first night Alexa arrived, I bought a book, some face cream and a giant bag of dog food without lifting a finger.
- Planning – forgetful people will rejoice in the fact that in the moment you remember things you can add them to your shopping list or to do list - “Alexa, add garlic to my shopping list” - easily accessible via the Amazon Echo mobile app.
- This list could go on forever but I’m trying to show restraint. Alexa was also handy last night while cooking (“Alexa, set a timer for three minutes”), when going to sleep (“Alexa, wake me up at 6:45am”), when getting ready for work (“Alexa, what’s the status of the Jubilee line?”) and just for general ?????
Putting aside the fact that by using Alexa, you're helping to extend the Amazon empire even further my biggest issue is that Alexa is female. Because of this, she continues to contribute to a long line of virtual assistants before her, reinforcing sexist stereotypes. As argued articulately by Cristina Criddle in this piece for The Daily Telegraph,
“Since birth we are programmed to tell women what to do - because they are our mothers, they are "trolley dollies", they are quiet, little ladies who don’t talk back. Now that we have an army of female AI assistants to command, the pattern begins again.”
No problem I thought. I’ll just subvert this very traditional gender stereotyping by calling my Alexa Alfred (I have a dog called Batman, this appealed to me hugely). No joy however, if you don’t like Alexa your only other options for ‘wake up’ words are Amazon (no thanks) and Echo (no thanks again).
A smaller gripe for the football fans amongst you is that while Alexa is great at answering questions about the NFL she's less hot on 'soccer' and has resisted all attempts of my husband's to talk about Bolton Wanderers results (but do you blame her?). I imagine this'll be fixed pretty quickly.
There's a handful of brands and media outlets on UK Alexa already as part of the 'skills' on offer (Uber, Barclays, Jamie Oliver, Just Eat, Guardian, Sky News) but the potential for expansion here is huge.
What retail brand - not covered by the afore mentioned Amazon empire - wouldn't want loyal customers to be able to place orders by simply saying it aloud when the thought occurred to them?
You can already find out about flight prices via SkyScanner, how long until you can book you holiday flights, car hire, hotels airbnb, restaurants and all? And wouldn't it be nice to get in a queue for Glastonbury, Beyoncé or Cursed Child tickets without needing to be physically attached to your device?
Alexa retails in the UK at £149.99, though Prime members were able to buy for £99.99 on release day. I would hazard a guess at it being on offer for this year’s Black Friday madness so if you want one, set your alarm early on Friday 25th November!