Posted on January 3, 2017 by staff

Gadget Gavin: Alexa popularity shows world has gone to bot


Did you get an Amazon Echo or Dot for Christmas?

It seems the world has gone potty about bots. Everyone either has one or is developing one. They are largely text-based, which you can interact with through Facebook, WhatsApp, iMessage and in many other ways.

This will be a big craze and on many levels it makes a lot of sense. If you can do all the things you currently use multiple apps for, like order a pizza, book a cab and check your bank balance, then it’s a big hooray from me.

It also means the barrier to entry comes down dramatically. For many companies that haven’t jumped on the app wagon because of cost and complexity, they could have something cost-effective built.

The majority of bots will be AI-driven, harnessing natural language processing and machine learning among other things. They will also be text-based.

The next logical step is to take this same technology and speak to it instead of typing. You just need a couple of extra layers on the cake: speech to text then, and after the magic happens, text back to speech. Unfortunately it isn’t that simple and this causes a lot of frustration.

Alexa Bot is Amazon’s voice assistant and is now available in the UK on the Echo and Dot devices. They are largely the same except the Echo has a speaker and is three times the price. I naturally had to get one and see if Alexa was more intelligent and useful than Siri, which is available on Apple devices.

It caused quite a sensation upon arriving in the Wheeldon household. My three-year-old is a bit concerned about the origins and wellbeing of Alexa. Popular questions relate to what she eats and where she sleeps.

My six-year-old old has taken to lining up a cushion, grabbing a fleece blanket and curling up for a good audiobook. My wife just raised an eyebrow.

So is it any good? In my experience, the short answer is ‘not really’. It could be, and I hope it will be truly amazing in time.

However right now it has the same frustrations you’ll be familiar with if you use Siri on iOS and macOS.It understands you at best around half the time, andis able to help you 20 per cent of the time.

They have, however, clearly put a lot of time and effort in coming up with many ways of politely saying: “I can’t understand or help you.”

The inability to understand will get better with time. Siri certainly has over the past few years.

The more people use it, the more it will learn and improve. And I expect speaking with an American accent may up the percentages.

The ‘can’t help you’ bit is supposed to be addressed with ‘skills’, which are like apps you can link Alexa to. There are thousands of these, most of them pointless.

If Ubers came to my house (please Uber!) or decent food was delivered through Just Eat, I could use those skills.

The other downside of skills is you have to tell Alexa which one to use, which means remembering which task you linked each app to. That’s fine for common ones, but then you’re lost.

Given that I have Prime and also an Audible account, I was able to play a large selection of music and have audio books read aloud.

Along with the basics like timers for cooking, measurements and quick and easy questions, these things work well.

For me the big thing will be when Control4, my home automation system, links to it. They already do in the US, so hopefully it’s not too far away.

Gadget Gavin’s verdict: Alexa Bot is pretty cool with lots of potential – just don’t expect too much and you won’t be disappointed.

Gavin Wheeldon is CEO of Purple