Amazon Alexa: AI it is NOT!

A while ago I got myself a Amazon Alexa or, to be precise, a Amazon Echo Dot. I am a bit of a gadget freak after all so why the hell not? I really do not care much about most of the features that they try to sell the Alexa by. I just though it would be so cool to be able to do that Star Trek like stuff like say “Computer Lights” and have my lights turned on.

After having used it for a couple of months now I cannot really say that I regret buying it but I can say that I really do not understand the hype around it. This is a typical product that managed to be a “first of it’s kind” creating a new market segment and which sells by its perceived “coolness factor”. However, as a product, it is actually unbelievably substandard.

Alexa 2I guess the first thing that comes to mind is all the “Alexa is a spy”, “it is always listening”, “you are forfeiting your privacy” comments around Alexa. Well, unless you are a terrorist or for some other reason would be concerned about someone listening, like cheating on your wife or whatever, I do not see how you could be overly concerned about that. First, you have to say the wake up word before Alexa is actually listening. Sure, I am trusting Amazon not to lie about that but then I already do that with my smartphone, tablet and any other equipment which has the ability to record sound. Second, I am not in the habit of loudly recite my bank account numbers, passwords or any other information that I actually care about in my living room.

So, is Alexa any good then?

Let us start by make one thing clear. This product has nothing to do with intelligence whatsoever, AI or otherwise. It is nothing but a simple pattern matcher and a fairly stupid one at that. It listens for a fixed phrase with a placeholder for what you want to do or/and with what you want to do something. It is for example impossible to use the phrase “Computer Lights“. You have to use something like “Computer, turn on living room”. That is the wake up word followed by a predetermined command phrase followed by whatever, whatever in this case being the name of the room as defined by me in the Phillips Hue app. Obviously this is not the most logical sentence. I mean, I can turn on a girlfriend but my living room?

The same goes for pretty much anything else you want to do. You have to bark commands in a fairly rigid sentence structure that is quite far from natural language.

I do not understand why Amazon simply did not make Alexa more configurable so that you could just map a phrase to a executable command. For instance mapping the word “Light” to the command necessary to execute whatever the default phrase “turn on living room” would do. That way I could get my “Computer, lights” command.

Yes you can use third party skills like one from ‘IFTTT” to tie commands phrases to actions but then you are bound to the IFTTT trigger word so the best I could achieve, at least as far as my trials go, would be “Computer trigger lights” which is not really any better.

Also, there seems to be no real understanding of human language. Logically “Computer, lights“, “Computer, lights on“, “Computer, turn on lights please” should logically produce the same results but most of them produces either nothing or some irritating statement from Alexa that it did not understand what I wanted.

CanYouHearMeNowTo make matters worse Alexa’s hardware is far from great. If the room is otherwise silent it usual wakes up and understands pretty well. However, if there is already some noise like me watching TV I have to raise my voice considerably, to the point where I am shouting, for Alexa to react. In addition whether or not it actually correctly manages to parse what I am actually saying seems to be pretty much hit or miss.

Alexa 1I would never even consider using Alexa to actually do something that was of importance to me. Certainly not purchase anything with it. However, given how unreliable it actually is I cannot understand how anyone can even contemplate thrusting Alexa to reserve movie tickets or purchase a product.

So for me the bottom line is that my Echo Dot is a cool gadget with a clear entertainment value. Is it a practical service or a productivity device? Hell NO!



One thought on “Amazon Alexa: AI it is NOT!

  1. The AI hype train is a bit much. I get that Alexa’s cool, but will it really improve our lives, or just give us another gizmo to brag about?

    I personally think that true AI will always be on the horizon. I just don’t see how a machine can replicate the processes of the human brain.


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