5 Ways The Amazon Echo Could Become An Essential Part Of Your Life

Don't dismiss Amazon's new Siri-in-a-can just yet. One day, ambient computers just like it will be as common as toasters. Here's why.

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Last week, Amazon unveiled the Echo, a strange robot speaker that works something like Siri in a can. You can tell it to play music, set alarms, look up answers to questions, and add things to your shopping list just by talking.

You might be tempted to dismiss the Echo as just another half-baked Amazon product, and it may very well be. But make no mistake: what the Amazon Echo represents is the first step towards a type of computer that one day will be every bit as common in people's homes as toasters: the ambient computer, a bit of Star Trek technology that is much more practical, realistic, and closer to becoming a reality than the much vaunted universal communicator.

To help you understand the power of ambient computing, here are some things you should be able to do with the Amazon Echo—or an ambient computer like it—in even a couple of years' time. The Echo might not be the first ambient computer to do all of these things, and all of these use cases have privacy and security connotations that would need to be worked out. But the tech to do all of this stuff is present in the Echo as it stands right now: all it needs is the software to back it up.

The Ultimate Dispatcher

Nothing is going right. You overslept. You're rushing through the house, looking for your shoes and your keys. You're sure you're going to be late. As you cram your shoe onto your foot while simultaneously scrounging under the sofa for your keys, you call out: "Alexa, what's the best way for me to get to work on time?" A second later, Alexa calmly responds: "There's a bus in five minutes that you can catch if you rush, or I can call you an Uber that will get you to work five minutes early for roughly $18." Finding a $20 inexplicably deposited in your insole, you decided to save yourself some stress. "Alexa, order me an Uber," you say.

Right now, digital assistants like Siri, Cortana, and Amazon's Echo are closed ecosystems, integrated with only a few select services, which limits what you can do with them. By opening up the API so that other services can easily plug into voice assistants, an ambient computer could compare the options provided by multiple services (Uber, biking, public transportation) and contextually present the best options to you, using what it knows about you already (your home address, and your work address) as data points.

The Smartest Intercom

"Alexa, where's my wife?" you call out as you enter your house one evening. "She's in the bedroom, napping," Echo tells you, so you decide to go into your office and get some work done. "Alexa, can you tell her where I am when she wakes up?" An hour later, your yawning wife intercoms you in your office: "Hi, baby, good day? How do you feel about joining me in here for about 10 minutes?" The day's certainly starting to shape up.

Amazon Echo constantly listens in the background for you to say a code word, "Alexa." Saying that code word tells your Echo that you're about to give it a command, and to send whatever follows to Amazon's servers. But it's always listening, and that always-on electronic ear could be used to detect so much more than just a code word, such as algorithms that detect a user's footfall patterns and identify where they are in the house, or even listen to someone's breathing patterns to track their sleep cycles. Once your house always knows where you are and what you're doing, the possibilities—like effortless room-to-room intercomming—are potentially endless.

A Musical, Mind-Reading Housemate

It's been a bad day. It's pouring outside. You're stressed out at work. You are worried your boyfriend might dump you. But when you come home from work, you don't tell Echo any of this, even after Echo asks, "How was your day, today?" Instead, you mutter something to Echo about your day being fine and needing a cup of coffee. Yet somehow, Echo knows you could need some cheering up: a few minutes later, Echo says it's built a playlist of your favorite songs—starting with the Weather Sisters—which might help brighten your mood. And what do you know? It does.

Will.i.am's PULS smartwatch may be stupid, but it does have one smart trick up its sleeve. Thanks to technology by Israel-based company Beyond Verbal, the Puls can analyze your mood just by listening to your voice. Combine this software trick with access to Spotify's 20 million songs, and an ambient computer like the Echo could contextually tell when you're depressed or stressed, and suggest music that you like with a beat or rhythm that is statistically likely to improve your mood...all without you ever having to tell your Echo that you are feeling down at all. It'll just read your mind.

The Controller For Your Intranet Of Things

"Alexa, can you preheat the oven to 450 degrees?" you ask, measuring out the ingredients for your killer chocolate chip, peanut butter, and bacon cookies. "No problem," Alexa answers. As the oven heats up, though, you start sweating. "Alexa, will you please notch down the heat a couple of degrees while the oven is on?" you ask. "Of course." After the cookies are done baking, you pull them out of the oven, and tell Alexa to turn off the oven. Remembering what you told her earlier, she also raises the thermostat temperature a couple of degrees while she's at it.

With the Echo, there's been a fair amount of skepticism about the value in breaking out a voice-activated assistant like Siri and Cortana into a piece of furniture. But I think the reason is obvious: so it can operate as a universal ambient controller to your household intranet of things. We're not there yet, and maybe never will be, but if the Internet of Things ever develops an open standard for APIs—something called for by Steve Wolfram of Wolfram Alpha, whose natural language computational engine drives Siri—there's nothing that will stop an ambient computer from tying together all the smart gadgets of your house into an organized whole: your Nest thermostat, your Amazon Fire TV, your electronic locks . . . everything in your house with smarts.

Your Internet Weather Report

Your wife wants to spend some quality time together, so turn your phone and laptop off, and settle down to watch a movie. Before you start, you say, "Alexa, keep an eye on the Internet for me, and alert me in case of emergencies," After the movie is over, you ask Alexa: "Did I miss anything important?" Alexa tells you that since you've been away, you got an email from your mother, which doesn't seem to be very important; that the Red Sox beat the Mariners 6-3; and that you have three replies on Twitter, one of which seems to be angry. You and your wife decide to watch another movie. Halfway through, Alexa interrupts you, pausing the movie automatically: "I'm sorry to interrupt, but you have an email from your boss. It appears urgent.

Our eyeballs are the casualties of our always-on digital lifestyles. We spend too much time looking at screens, as much as 11 hours per day. Ambient computing can make that a thing of the past, allowing us to take time away from our devices while still remaining connected. With mood-analyzing technology, a database of your interests, and access to your email and social media accounts, ambient computers could allow us to "keep our ears" on the Internet, even if our eyes aren't.

[Photos: via Amazon]

John Brownlee

John Brownlee is a writer who lives in Boston with two irate parakeets and his wife, who has more exquisite … Continued

November 11, 2014 | 7:30 AM

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  • c.thomas3 John Brownlee 11 hours ago

    "...all of these use cases have privacy and security connotations that would need to be worked out."

    This seems to be the only nod towards the sly side to products like this in your article which is a shame. I'm surprised with companies already acting dubiously with our information (at the very least scanning our emails to sell ads), this technology is just a little closer to unlocking more of what we are thinking (what we want)… and feeling. ( Asking how your day was, and "Yet somehow, Echo knows you could need some cheering up" ) It's difficult with this to not picture a future where these gadgets would have the processing power to more effectively respond to our emotional needs than the very humans we live with? (i.e. did your girlfriend not manage to pick up on the tone of your voice? or better, have time to make you a playlist in 2.5 seconds?) Better awareness of the ethics of these technologies would be nice to hear from a human. Unless Siri is writing these articles now?

  • Manika Bahuguna John Brownlee 12 hours ago

    I like the imagination and I agree, while right now it seems like a big Siri, it does represent good possibilities for the future!

  • Jeffrey Bernard Moon John Brownlee 19 hours ago

    this article is vaporware for print

  • nat.irvin John Brownlee 20 hours ago

    good summary but I believe we will know how "echo" will reverberate in the future once young children and the elderly get to play with it...then we will see the magic of unintended never before thought of uses...

  • nat.irvin John Brownlee 20 hours ago

    Good summary...i think about companionship of a sort for older folks maybe at moments in their lives when they are without others...and they need to be brought up to date on matters of a sort...could be quite useful...and fun.

  • gravijax John Brownlee A day ago

    Solid use cases. It does seem like the product is a bit early for the home automation scenarios. One less screen is a bonus.

    Side note: sweet jesus that last case sounds horrendous. Your boss busting into your living room. Quality time with the wife is watching movies. That sounds like a grim future.

  • John Brownlee gravijax 20 hours ago

    I was trying to communicate the opposite, and probably failed. What I was trying to say was that ambient computers could be gatekeepers to when you're alerted. Using mood-analyzing software, it could allow you to walk away from your phone and laptop, yet still be alerted if it thinks something urgent demands your attention, like an email from your boss saying, "We've got an emergency here" or your Dad emailing, saying your Mom just fell down the stairs. I see it as freeing.

  • Comment removed.
  • Tim Burley John Brownlee A day ago

    Old fashioned sci fi thinking, where we talk to an AI and it helps us to get stuff done. Can you imagine a world where everyone jabbers away to their AI all day long?

  • Kelli Kitch Duncan Tim Burley 14 hours ago

    We jabber to Al all day all ready, just by typing rather than talking. I see the echo first as a way to interface with the internet the way I do with people - by voice. The first use case I thought of is how many times Alexa can solve an argument before it even starts. Time is the thing I need more of and a digital assistant who can help me manage small tasks like reminders and lookup information might buy more of it. I am all in.

    Another use case for Alexa is in a business meeting. API to your business software and get data to support the conversation. Rather than everyone having heads in a laptop, its a lively discussion with one set of data, constantly changing based on the speed of conversation.

  • Martin Veldsman Tim Burley 17 hours ago

    While it could be more intrusive, I imagine it would offer a more nonchalant experience than quietly tapping away at a screen. These devices could offer a more fluid or personified interaction with technology, and less isolation than caused by screen interactions.

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