Any nerd who’s seen Star Trek knows that no one bothers to use a keyboard (despite being all over the Enterprise anyway) when they want to send an email or correspond with sexy single Klingons in their area. As technology has moved forward into the 24th century, the preferred method of human-computer interface is shouting into thin air and totally expecting something to come of it.
Here in the backwaters of the 21st century, we’re still pecking out text messages on our tiny smartphones like cavepeople. We can’t even send dick pics without some manual intervention (allusion intentional). The use of voice commands isn’t quite there yet for controlling our devices, but things do seem to be trending in that direction. We can commune with Siri or settle in with OK Google or interact with Cortana, sadly without the sexy blue hologram. Our efforts sometimes pay off, but more often than not I expect that voice interaction with our tech is accidentally ordering 20 lobsters for shipment to Mozambique than it is setting a reminder to pick up a loaf of bread on the way home from work.
Amazon — all hail Amazon — continues to find ways to shoehorn itself into our lives with the Echo line of voice (and now video) enabled devices. Of course, Amazon — all hail Amazon — wants us to use their services for everything: to buy books, to buy clothing, toys, electronics, movies, music, and (in the three metro places where they offer it) groceries. It’s stupidly convenient to get a shipment from Amazon like it ain’t no thing: Prime shipping with One Click ordering means we might not even realize that we ordered something until it arrives on our doorstep. The Echo is Amazon’s — all hail Amazon — attempt to bring a little Star Trek into our lives.
The flagship Echo is a $180USD tower that comes with a built-in speaker, but for those on a budget there’s the Echo Dot, a smaller puck sized device sans speaker that can be had for as low as $35USD. These deco-enabled devices can sit on the sidelines until someone randomly says “Alexa” — one of the device’s activation words — too loudly, at which point the device springs to action in the way you wish your S.O. would: waiting patiently to listen to anything you want to tell it. You can tell the Echo to put a shopping item on a list, play songs from Pandora, Spotify, or (of course) Amazon Music, get a weather forecast, control your smart home, tell you a joke, or do something else enabled through one of the myriad of “skills” you can activate on your account like it was downloading from The Matrix.
Does that sound awesome to you? Possibly not. Unlike the 24th century where society has evolved to a point where voice interface is the prevalent and most convenient way to work with technology in their fast paced environment, we’re still not quite at the point where shouting at the aether is more efficient or more accurate than any other method we have at our disposal. I can OK Google a timer as quickly as I can get the Echo to start one. I can open an app on my phone and add an item to a shopping list as fast as I can by ordering the Echo to do the same. I can also play my songs from my tablet through my Bluetooth speakers just as easily as I could through the Echo, with the added bonus of being able to take the music with me as I move through the house or to plug in some earbuds if I want some privacy.
The Echo technology is getting there, though. This morning I found that the new “Drop In” functionality had been enabled on my devices (I have three Echo Dots, one on each floor of my house). This feature allows my family and me to use the Echo as an intercom system, a feature that was forehead-smackingly absent from the original product. At $35 each, it’s easy to buy multiple Dots for whenever and wherever you feel the need to talk to someone elsewhere in the house without shouting, and being able to talk to another Dot or Echo on your network seems like a feature worth the price of admission. I tried it out with my wife this morning, communicating from the kitchen to the bedroom, and aside from the acoustics reaching me through good old vibrating air a few seconds before the Dot transmitted the same, it worked flawlessly. Of course, this is only good for when you have multiple Echo devices throughout your home or want to use the smartphone app to remotely intercom with someone at home, or want to monitor what’s going on in your house or apartment through the new Echo Show, which is the realization of the dreams of many futurists from the 1990’s who wanted a viable video phone in their lifetime.
The Echo is, at best, a magnetic notepad with tethered pen that you can stick to your fridge so you don’t have to root around in a junk drawer for the same when you need to make a list or leave a note, but at $35 it improves on that notepad in a technology-forward way for those who are into that. Considering we only have about a decade until Amazon — all hail Amazon — has at least five different vectors into each of our lives, I can only expect the technology to get better and possibly more useful. Right now, though, it’s a fun novelty that can be made to fit into a niche in our lives that gives us a “summer stock” vision of a Star Trek future.
Footnote: I know a lot of people are going to scrunch up their faces and wonder why I didn’t address things like privacy concerns or the possibility of cyber attacks turning the devices against us. I am not an analyst, despite the fact that I have a blog and write a whole lot of words without saying a damn thing worth noting. There are people who are much better at talking about these things than I am — take Mr. Koster’s post above as an example.
The Echo — and the Internet, and the things on the Internet — will always only be as safe as the infrastructure that supports them, and as secure as the people and business that support that infrastructure are willing and able to make them. As a consumer, my job isn’t to harden my node against any and all attacks, because there’s only so much I can do at what they refer to as “the last mile”; instead, I need to decide where to place my trust, if I am placing any trust at all, among those who control the lion’s share of pathways and services that are available to me. This is not a question of tech, but a question we all have to face, every day, as a species. Who we trust and how much we trust them has always been a part of the human condition. We need to trust our banks, our employers and employees, our neighbors, our families, and even total strangers. We need to decide who to trust with our money and our health and our futures every single day, tech or no tech. Technology is neutral; the Echo itself isn’t maliciously haunting you out of the box.
So it’s really up to the individual how far each of us wants to allow tech into our lives. We can arm ourselves with truth — not speculation, or even panicked what-if’s — and then…we have to decide who among those upstream of us deserve our trust. Considering Amazon knows as much about me as any other service I use these days, and chances are they know just about as much about you, then I think the Echo is about as safe as the PCs, consoles, tablets, and smartphones that we have come to rely on.