Virtual1 (en-GB)

The Voice of Reason


James Hickman - CTO at Virtual1

In the recent pre-Christmas retail pandemonium, I picked up one of those AmazonEcho Dot devices. This was inspired by a friend who is very much into home automation and a general interest in the voice recognition technology. Is itreally any good?

Aftera bit of techno-fettling, I can now ask Alexa what the news headlines are, when the next bus is due and to add items to my shopping or to-do list. Whilst my initial ambition was to link it into my own home automation set-up, I seem to have become addicted to building to-do lists and checking the time. I mean why do I need to look at my watch when I can just say “Alexa, what time is it?” and it tells me.

Or should that be “she tells me”. Is it a British idiosyncrasy to want to acknowledge Alexa’s efforts in making my life that little bit easier or shouldI consider it a cold, soulless machine without any feelings? Certainly, Alexa seems to be that little bit more natural to deal with than Siri or Cortana, the voice-control offerings from Apple and Microsoft respectively.

Part of this question boils down to the ability of Alexa to quickly understand and respond to a question posed by anybody in the room, without any voice training.Sure enough, adding “buy eggs” to an internal shopping list shouldn’t be a complex computing task, but looking up a bus timetable, calculating the next arrival to the particular stop outside the house and relaying that information is far faster than I could do it even using an app on a mobile. Don’t forget,Alexa had to pick apart the incoming audio stream, work out which bits were a human speaking, decipher the words, parse that into a query, run the relevant process to gather the information, work out how to turn that into something that can be said and then say it. How does this little digital hockey puck doit so fast?

The secret is that it doesn’t.

The Echo is a gateway into the online world of Alexa. Back in the Amazon datacentres are a raft of machines processing voice streams and analysing the collective experience of how thousands of those devices are being used to refine and constantly improve how they work. Coupled to this is a fast databaseof cached information and links to various webservices from partner andcommunity sources. When you ask Alexa something, you are essentially delvinginto a digital incarnation of Jung’s theory of Synchronicity. If you don’t know what that is, ask Alexa to explain it to you. (I haven’t tried that. I’ll ask her to put it on my to-do list).

I predict we are at the beginning of a new wave of “Internet of Things” device where non-technical people will start to see genuine benefits from these technologies. There are two key underpinning elements to all this though: CloudComputing and fast Connectivity.

So I guess no matter how good Alexa might be, she still needs us network people fora while yet.