Amazon’s Alexa isn’t the future of AI—it’s a glorified radio clock, and stupid otherwise

Alexa likely demonstrating her best skill: saying “I don’t know.”
Alexa likely demonstrating her best skill: saying “I don’t know.”
Image: AP Photo/Jeff Chiu
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Sometimes Alexa forgets to wake me up in the morning; other times, if the volume hasn’t been turned up all the way, I’ll wake up half an hour late to an alarm that is only one tenth as loud as I want it. But if she loses connection to my WiFi at 3 am, she’ll definitely let me know right away. If someone shouts my name—Alex—across the apartment, it will activate Alexa, although sometimes Alexa will also be activated by arbitrary syllables in ordinary conversation. And if she starts doing something annoying, you’ll have to shout “Alexa, Stop,” six or seven times. Sometimes she’ll play Rod Stewart covers of Ella Fitzgerald songs instead of the Ella Fitzgerald versions, which defies both the alphabet and common sense. She struggles to understand phrases like “rewind” or “maximum volume.”

If I’m feeling sentimental like Rick Blaine, I can ask her what the weather is in Paris, but it takes two separate commands and questions to find out if it will rain or snow in New York. As I read this paragraph aloud to myself, her blue ring has already lit up several times and is blinking in panicked anticipation of hearing an extremely basic request that she won’t be able to fulfill. This is not what artificial intelligence looks like. But what I will concede is that at $49.99, Alexa is one of the best toys for adults, and the world’s best clock radio.

I can’t imagine that the designers at Amazon would have been thrilled with the minor achievement of having assembled the world’s foremost clock radio when they built the Amazon Echo, a smart home hub that came out in 2015. But what else could they possibly have expected after packing this little device with a prodigious number of useless easter eggs and yet somehow overlooking a glaring, Death Star-level flaw: the Echo uses Bing instead of Google. Which is to say, it can read you the prime directive from Star Trek and can tell you who is the fairest of them all, but it can’t tell you what the Packers’ record is this year. If in 2001 at the age of eleven I learned to use Google, I should like to think that Alexa in 2016 should be able to do the same.

Although this sleek, feminine robot was meant to be an outstanding piece of smart home technology, the slow evolution of home automation and the dearth of smart home products in the average household  has made devices like the Echo or Google Home—Google’s voice controlled smart hub, similar to Alexa—much better suited for being asked to look things up on the internet than anything else. This reality doesn’t bode well for Alexa, because her response to 95% of basic search queries is “I can’t find the answer to the question I heard.” It is a phrase that Alexa owners are all too familiar with. It is a phrase you hear again, and again, and again, and soon you will feel that time has stopped, and you will never want to look up anything on the internet ever again. There is a reason that the phrase “to google” has universally come to mean looking up on the internet. It is because Google is the most reliable search engine. At best, and Bing looks like an ad pages site posing as a search engine.

As a result, not only is Alexa incapable of looking up even basic facts, but she can’t even really answer the questions posed to Android devices in Google commercials from three years ago. It’s answer to “Do dogs dream” is just “Some dogs dream,” which is such a frustratingly glib answer compared to the more charming answer google provides. In one commercial for Google Home a father asks his device how big a blue whale is and is told that it weighs 300,000 pounds. When I asked Alexa the same question, she informed me that there is no real way to estimate the size of a blue whale because whales are so big that they usually need to be cut up into blocks and weighed piece by piece. She also prompted me to activate a skill called Whale Facts.

Echo Skills are essentially a series of triggers and and abilities that Alexa can deploy when prompted. While the device comes with pre-programmed skills, the vast majority of them are designed by third parties and must be manually activated on the Alexa app (which has a 1-star rating on the iTunes Store). And while Amazon boasts 3,000 of these skills, they are perhaps the worst thing about the Echo.

The best skills are those that came were pre-programmed, which is why Alexa is great at playing NPR, but terrible at telling you whale facts. The sort of phrasing you must use with Alexa to benefit from these third party skills is incredibly specific and incredibly tedious. You cannot simply ask Alexa to do the skill, but you must ask Alexa to ask the skill by name to do what it is meant to do. And there are so many skills, each with different names and functions, that you begin to lose track of them. You can’t say “Alexa, find my phone,” but instead must ask say “Alexa, ask TrackR to find my phone.” And God forbid you should accidentally forget the name TrackR, you’ll need your phone to look it up. This circuitous pathway of confusion is hardwired into Alexa.

More often than not they are designed by people sitting in a garage trying to make Alexa suit their own personal needs instead of by designers at Amazon looking for ways to make Alexa more useful to the general public. Alexa even brags that it is compatible with a slew of smart home and bluetooth devices, and bundled on Amazon with Philips Hue smart home light bulbs. But in order to use the Hue bulbs with Alexa, you must relinquish all use of manual light switches. If you accidentally turn off one of the switches by hand instead, the whole system stops working. A smart home is not one that forces you to abandon the very light switches that have become a staple of indoor living over the last 100 years. That is stupid. Very stupid indeed. Alexa’s limited skill and general incompetence, however, offers the minor comfort that there will probably not be a robot uprising anytime soon.

Alexa is also incredibly stubborn. She does not stop talking the first time you ask. The notion of being woken up by a space age alarm is totally ruined the moment you find yourself screaming at a black hockey puck device on your nightstand. She doesn’t like to be interrupted.

Alexa also happens to be fairly dumb. She doesn’t understand the phrase “I’m awake.” She does not take follow-up questions (which Google Home does), she cannot intuit anything, she tries to connect to the wrong bluetooth devices, she cannot give directions or travel time estimates for public transit. Unless you deactivate voice purchasing—a built in skill that allows you to order stuff from your Amazon account—you will find yourself disputing accidental purchases every week. Essentially Alexa is, at best, no more convenient than pulling out your phone, and at worst, an extra detour your take before realizing you’ll probably need to pull out your phone anyway. I wish Amazon had designed a piece of technology that I could jokingly refer to as my girlfriend, but I don’t even want to introduce Alexa to any of my friends.

But there are some areas in which Alexa is first in her class. Her half-life is probably the shortest of any piece of modern technology; in 2 months she loses as much functionality as a Macbook Pro does in four years. Mine is growing sluggish and deaf.

And yet, despite these operational flaws, the Echo would be the most reviled device on Amazon if it weren’t for a slew of functions that actually make life easier, even enjoyable. The Echo can connect to Spotify and Prime music, among others, which means that I can shout out just about any song and be able to hear it seconds later. From inside my shower I can ask what time it is, or what the temperature is in New York. I can ask what year The Godfather came out. In a pinch it can act as a bluetooth speaker for my laptop. I can—unlike our new president—choose to hear hourly news briefings pieced together from a number of sources, or listen to a podcast. And like any good squire, Alexa will relinquish her micro USB to any of my friends hoping to charge their Android devices.

It is, indeed, the greatest clock radio ever made. Nothing more. This much becomes apparent if I grow overzealous and put forth a slightly complicated search query. At moments like these I begin to feel that Alexa’s entire existence is so remarkably counterintuitive and sometimes even suspect she has been put on this planet to thwart me at every turn. Unless, of course, I need to ask her what time it is, or if I want to hear Taylor Swift. On those tasks she always performs marvelously.