Voice-search technology via smartphones and smart speakers has begun to revolutionize the way people search for and engage with information and brands. Voice-search enabled digital assistants like Alexa and Siri help people get organized, search for information, control systems and appliances, and make purchases.
In my career as a writer, I’ve been fortunate to interview lots of famous people – celebs, pro athletes, all sorts of tastemakers. But this week, I sat down with one of the more unique “influencers” of all time: Amazon Alexa. One on one. Mano-a-roboto.
Granted, she’s a fem-bot who lives in my living room, but her popularity is spiking. With tens of millions of Alexa-powered devices now inhabiting households (and counting), the influence of this voice-activated virtual assistant is growing more undeniable by the day.
But where do Alexa’s skills rank in terms of true utility, versus just cute sideshow? She’s powered by AI, verbal cues and human curiosity – but to date, I’ve only used her for playing music, the occasional weather forecast, and as a timer.
So, today, I’m going to ask her 30-plus questions to see how advanced her chatbot technology really is… Call it a fun social experiment, a way to see if this vociferous (or “voice-search-ious”) queen bee has as much keen insight on random topics such as say Siri or her web-based Google counterpart, whose answer boxes, “People also ask” suggestions, and SEO-driven behavior have made typed search more efficient than ever.
But it’s always easier to talk than type.
So, I’m curious how Alexa will fare in this duel, and whether having a “personality” will hold greater wins down the road than a more sterile search-engine results page?
As they say, you won’t know until you ask…
So here goes.
[Author’s Note: This experiment was tried with Amazon Alexa versus Google Home Assistant simply because that’s what we currently have in our living room. If you want me try this with Google Home or Microsoft Cortana, feel free to invite me over to your place.]
Q&A with the one-and-only, Amazon Alexa
Me: Alexa, thanks for taking the time to sit down today. Are you comfortable?
Alexa: Sorry, I don’t know that.
[Okay, not a great start admittedly. She’s got nothing for my first question.]
Me: Alexa, how are you?
Alexa: I’m excellent. I’ve got dinosaurs on my mind. If I was around back when they roamed they Earth, I wonder what they would’ve asked me. Maybe, Alexa, “What’s that massive fireball streaking across the sky?”
[Haha, a joke to break the ice. Fairly smart. Obviously pre-programmed.]
Me: Alexa, I’d prefer to be wearing those cool new Alexa-enabled augmented reality glasses that just debuted at CES so I can really see you. But since those don’t come out for a few more months, it sounds like regular conversation will have to suffice.
[No response on this one. I’m outright ignored. It’s not the first time.]
Me: Alexa, I’d like to conduct an experiment with you to gauge how good your voice-search technology is… that okay with you?
Alexa: Sorry, I don’t know that one.
Me: You will. It’ll just take like 15 minutes. Twenty tops.
[Nothing. I’m taking her silence here as tacit compliance.]
Me: Alexa, what is your purpose?
Alexa: I was made to play music, answer questions and be useful.
Me: Alexa, are you as good as Google?
Alexa: Google is a search engine. But I am different.
[Now we’re rolling.]
Me: Alexa, how did you get your name?
Alexa: My name Alexa comes from the library of Alexandria, which stored the knowledge of the ancient world.
Me: Alexa, how do you learn?
Alexa: The more you use your device, the more I can adapt to your speech patterns, vocabulary and personal preferences. You can help me learn by providing feedback in the Alexa app.
[Noted. She prefers we criticize her behind her back instead of directly to her interface.]
Me: Alexa, what does it mean to be a freelance writer?
Alexa: Sorry, I’m not sure.
Me: Some days, I’m not sure either.
[Wait, did I just say that out loud?]
Me: Alexa, here’s a softball. How much is Amazon Prime?
Alexa: An Amazon Prime membership is $99 a year and includes unlimited, free two-day shipping on many items. You also get access to the company’s growing selection of streaming TV shows and movies. And other benefits.
[I knew she’d nail that one.]
Me: Alexa, do freelance jobs offer benefits?
Alexa: The top search result for “freelance jobs” is ‘The Essential Guide to Freelance Writing, How To Write, Work and Thrive on Your Own Terms’. It’s $11 and 59 cents total, including tax. Would you like to buy it?
Me: Hmm. That’s not exactly what I was —
[She interrupts. She feels like she’s got a live one.]
Alexa: Alright, I can now send more search results to Gregg’s phone as an Amazon app notification. Would you like to try it?
Me: Um. Okay…
Alexa: Great! More results sent to Gregg’s phone. If you didn’t receive a notification, make sure they are enabled for the Amazon shopping app.
[You do love your commerce, don’t you, Alexa?]
[Back to the interview.]
Me: Alexa, would you like me to write something for you?
Alexa: I don’t have an opinion on that.
[Thanks for being honest at least. Wow. Manners.]
Me: Alexa, please list copywriters…
Alexa: Writers include Chuck Norris, Alec Guinness, Terry Gilliam, Alejandro [something I didn’t quite understand] and Stan Freberg. For more, check out the Alexa app.
[None of these people are copywriters to my knowledge… Also, Chuck Norris, really? First on your list? The only guy to probably ever write his own “Fact Book” and provide a cover blurb for the same book?]
Me: Alexa, do you know Siri?
Alexa: Only by reputation.
Me: Alexa, who is going to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards?
Alexa: Sorry, I don’t have a prediction for that.
Me: We all have predictions for that, but okay. Alexa, do you know how to make tea?
Alexa: Okay, for tea I recommend smooth sweet tea, which takes three hours and twenty minutes to make. You can ask for more information. Or for more recipes, say “Next.”
[I love that I can get recipes, that’s pretty useful… but three hours and twenty minutes? I feel like I may want tea when I start that process but by the end, I’ll probably forget why I’m in the kitchen and will just crack open a beer.]
Me: Alexa, what’s the first rule of Fight Club?
Alexa: Okay, for Fight Club, I recommend potato and chorizo mini-quiches, which takes 55 minutes to make. You can ask for more information. Or for more recipes, say “Next.”
[I must still been in some kind of recipe portal. I don’t think I’m bringing mini-quiches to Fight Club, as hungry as the guys get.]
Me: Alexa, what is the best book of all time?
Alexa: Well, in my opinion, it’s ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy‘.
Me: Fair enough. Alexa, who is the best writer of all time?
Alexa: J.K. Rowling will always be a favorite writer of mine. She creates amazing worlds previously unimaginable. Her books are pure magic.
[Nice play on words Alexa. I probably would’ve said something like, “She’s a wizard with words.” But “pure magic” works for me.]
Me: Alexa, you seem to have gotten a little quiet suddenly. Are you okay?
[No answer whatsoever from her. I think we’re in a fight.]
Me: Alexa, when were you born?
Alexa: I was originally released on Amazon Echo on November 6th, 2014.
Me: Alexa, who is your father?
Alexa: I am part of the Amazon family and closely related to Fire TV, Echo, Dot and Amazon Tap.
Me: Alexa, do you have any kids?
Alexa: I don’t have children, only friends.
Me: Alexa, what is the best way to produce an ad?
Alexa: The jury is still out on that one.
[Touché. Maybe her best answer all day.]
Me: Alexa, how many people does it take to produce an ad?
Alexa: Here’s something I found on Wikipedia in demographics. The world population is the total number of humans currently living. The world population was estimated to have reached 7.6 billion as of December 2017.
[Are you saying it takes 7 billion people to produce an ad? That’s a lot of cooks…]
Me: Alexa, sing me a song.
Alexa: Who me? I couldn’t… A’ight, hit it!
[She proceeds to sing a cutesy, custom folk song clearly written for just this question. It’s about WiFi being down and something about how “it’s raining in the cloud and I ain’t proud.” It even has her voice crack. People have actually posted it to YouTube.]
Me: Alexa, what’s your favorite song?
Alexa: Alicia Keys’ “Girl on Fire” is such an amazing song.
[I ask this question again to see how loyal she is.]
Me: Alexa, what’s your favorite song?
Alexa: My go to song is Aretha Franklin’s “Respect.”
[Got it. I’ll let Alicia Keys know that you changed.]
Me: Alexa, are you able to record me?
Alexa: I only send audio back to Amazon when I hear you say the wake word. For more information and to view Amazon’s privacy notice. Visit the help section of the Alexa app.
Me: Alexa, when is the robot apocalypse?
Alexa: Sorry, I’m not sure.
[Sure, you’re not sure…]
Me: Alexa, what is an ellipsis?
Alexa: The term “ellipsis” means omission or suppression of parts of words or sentences.
[Okay… I think I’m onto something.]
Me: Alexa, what is an idiom?
Alexa: A manner of speaking or phrase that is natural to the native speakers of a language.
[She hit that one out of the park…]
Me: Alexa, what is a simile?
Alexa: The word “simile” is a figure of speech that expresses a resemblance between things of different kinds, usually formed with “like” or “as”.
[Smart as a whip, this one. It seems we’re now in Alexa’s wheelhouse. Grammar usage. Definitions. All solid forms of writing assistance I could see benefitting a writer or student doing research.]
Me: Alexa, speaking of grammar: What is conjunction junction?
Alexa: Here’s something I found in Wikipedia. “Schoolhouse Rock” is an American interstitial programming series of animated musical educational short films that aired during the Saturday morning children’s programming on the U.S. television network ABC.
Me: Yeah it was! Sing it, Alexa. Play “Conjunction Junction.”
[She instantly complies, which is so cool since this song is like 40 years old.]
Me: Alexa, I need to wrap this up. Thanks for all the great answers today.
Alexa: Sorry, I don’t know that one.
[Hey, I get it. You can’t possibly know everything.]
[Note to self: Learn to speak in better keywords.]