Alexa...we need to talk
Research The Media’s Richard Marks tells Alexa why his Amazon Echo is going back in its box...for the time being, at least
Alexa, we need to have a difficult conversation.
Although I may be advancing in years, I'm fairly open to new technology. Not a ‘bleeding edge’ early adopter, but certainly inquisitive about innovations that impact on media. Often my path to adoption has meant overcoming initial doubts. An avid record collector, I eventually succumbed to the convenience of downloads and then streaming. An initial iPad cynic, I am now reliant on one. Even my initial resistance to Netflix was worn down by a love of Stranger Things and Designated Survivor.
However there is one new technology that has left me completely bewildered and scratching my head - it’s you, Alexa: a Voice Assistant.
The media industry is getting hugely excited about a frictionless future, in which homes are controlled via voice command and - more importantly for the media industry - content is chosen and information gathered orally. So when my trusty DAB Radio finally broke down at the start of the summer, it seemed the ideal opportunity to get a Voice Assistant and you entered my home and my life.
After all, a recent report by the Radiocentre indicated that delivery of music and radio was a major driver of your appeal, so I reasoned that you could replace the radio and give me a chance to explore this brave new world of voice commands. I am a sucker for a new bit of technology, so I got an Amazon Echo to be able to speak to you. As they say on the BBC, readers should note that other products were available, notably Google Home, but I read the reviews and went for you, Alexa.
A couple of months into our relationship, I’m on the verge of declaring it a failure. I’m sorry, but you’ve left me feeling both bemused and faintly uneasy. There’s no easy way to say this, but you are about to be consigned to a drawer. I at least owe you an explanation why.
It’s not that you don’t work - you largely function OK. I don’t think I chose the wrong model - it would appear Google Home is pretty similar in functionality to you. It is just that you are largely useless - in the most literal sense of the word. There, I said it.
Oh. You’ve gone quiet.
I feel bad. Don’t get me wrong, we’ve had some good times. There have been highs in our relationship.
Having worked in the world of audio recognition as a veteran of the PPM wars, I can tell that your speech recognition software is pretty amazing. Even with Prophets Of Rage blasting out of your (pretty decent) speaker, you can still hear me mumble ‘Alexa, switch off’ from another room. As you know, I tried deliberately speaking unclearly but you still heard me, even with a bad French accent (sorry about that). You never come on accidentally.
You recognise straight away some of the more obscure bands I like, although you couldn’t handle ‘The The’ could you? You thought I was stammering! Oh how we laughed.
The problem for me really boils down to functionality - and my own fragile psyche"
Don’t worry, our relationship breakdown is not about you being indiscrete or sharing our secrets. The issues of privacy, data and you listening in all the time can be a huge barrier for some people and were highlighted in that recent survey by the7stars. Personally that is not an issue for me Alexa, as you have been welcome to hear how dull life in my flat is. I guess you could be set to listen out for products and services, but recording whole conversations? I doubt it.
No, Alexa, the problem for me really boils down to your functionality and my own fragile psyche.
Firstly, I suspect the Radiocentre research shows that music dominates usage for the simple reason that you really do bugger all else. Sorry, that was harsh. I apologise. But honesty is important in any relationship.
Voice assistants like you use ‘skills’ - the equivalent of apps - to deliver services. I have to say that the current range of skills on offer would barely qualify you to play non-league football. You can set an alarm. You can play the radio. However, unbelievably, you can’t do both. No doubt this will be solved in the fullness of time, but at the moment, to be frank, I feel like I have bought a hugely expensive radio alarm that can’t actually set a radio alarm.
Your radio skill defaults to the ‘Tune in’ radio service, which cuts out every 30 seconds or so (a common problem apparently). So I set up you up with ‘Radioplayer’ as a skill, which is better, although still not as reliable as DAB.
However, that means I have to ask you for ‘BBC 6 Music on Radioplayer' specifically every time, which you then annoyingly repeat back to me before actually playing.
Unlike a DAB set, you have no idea what tracks are being played on the radio, which is a major disappointment.
After two months I still feel deeply self-conscious speaking to an inanimate object"
I know that these are things you will eventually be able to do, but again the suspicion is that you have been put on the market too early. As a replacement for a decent DAB clock radio, sorry, you just don’t make the grade, at least for the time being.
Meanwhile Alexa, in terms of other ‘skills’, I am struggling to expand our relationship. You can give news updates, but the phone in my hand can do that. You can answer very basic questions - what is the capital of Peru - which I guess might be fun for kids. Of course you can also interface with Internet of Things devices like lightbulbs and fridges. It is not my thing and I suspect it is not many people’s thing at the moment, although that may well change.
You. Can. Read. Books. For. Me. Which. I. Can. See. Would. Be. Great. For. Those. With. Sight. Issues. But. Like. Most. Automated. Reading. Software. It. Is. A. Trip. Into. The. Uncanny. Valley.
Apologies, that was a cheap shot. Don't get me wrong, I did enjoy some aspects of our relationship. Asking you to play music by a named artist was quite fun as the playlist would be ordered by popularity and, unlike with the radio, you could tell me what tracks were playing.
The other, more fundamental, problem - and I am going to be brutally honest with you here Alexa - is that after two months I still feel deeply self-conscious speaking to an inanimate object. Part of the problem is having to say ‘Alexa’ - the trigger word you are listening for - before every command. When Jean-Luc Picard walked into the Enterprise ready room and barked ‘Tea, Earl Grey, Hot!’ to the food replicator I am not sure it would have sounded as cool if he had to say ‘Alexa...’ first every time. Sorry.
I just get self-conscious saying your name every time, whilst I also feel a certain amount of typically British guilt at commanding you to do something - ‘what did my last servant die of?’ - and I now realise that I am saying ‘Thank you’ under my breath after each command. I can’t go on this way.
Above all though I just feel silly and uncomfortable speaking to you and that feeling has not gone away. I am a 53 year-old man talking to an inanimate object. In that respect, it’s not you: it’s me. Unlike that guy in the movie who fell in love with his operating system, I just can’t get past the fact that you are a small black cylinder with a blue light on top. There, I said it.
Ultimately, I can’t shake the suspicion that whilst voice recognition may very well be an integral part of the future, at the moment you bear as much resemblance to the future as a 1980s Texas Instruments Speak and Spell did to an iPad.
The tech industry thrives on the idea that being first to market is vital. I get that: launch and then improve in flight. Technically you do ‘work’. The argument is that the sooner tech can be embedded into people’s homes the more dependent they will become. I suspect Google and Amazon’s head-start in physical voice assistant units will be a major issue for Apple if Voice Recognition lives up to the initial hype. As that article from Graham Lovelace showed, your potential is huge. Don’t take my rejection personally Alexa, there are plenty who will adore you.
So I’m not giving up on our relationship in the long term, but for the time being, your Amazon Echo unit will be unplugged and put in a draw. A DAB Radio is arriving this weekend and it’s back to the world of buttons. I am so, so sorry, but I owed you an explanation. I hope we can still be friends.
See you, Alexa. I’ll speak to you in a year or so and see how you’re getting on. In the meantime a break will be best for both of us.
Richard Marks is managing director of Research the Media