Users Discuss Health with Alexa

For better or worse, many people now turn to WebMD for health information. We learn from Forbes’ article, “Amazon Alexa Can Now Be Your Doctor” that Amazon has worked with that site to develop a skill enabling Alexa to answer basic health questions. For those who want to get it in writing, contributor Lee Bell mentions:

In addition to providing answers via voice, the new WebMD integration gives users the chance to request additional information sent in text form to their Alexa app.

Though her voice may tempt us to think otherwise, Alexa’s involvement does nothing to combat the problem of misdiagnosis-via-internet. Still, for those determined to research their symptoms before calling the doctor, this skill could save some time.

Cynthia Murrell, May 23, 2017

Microsoft Does Their Share to Make Chatbots Smarter

Chatbots are like a new, popular toy that everyone must have, but once they are played with the glamor wears off and you realize they are not that great.   For lack of better terms, chatbots are dumb.  They have minimal comprehension and can only respond with canned phrases.  Chatbots are getting better because companies are investing in linguistic resources and sentimental analysis.  InfoQ tells us about Microsoft’s contributions to chatbots’ knowledge in, “Microsoft Releases Dialogue Dataset To Make Chatbots Smarter.”

The Microsoft company, Maluuba, released a new chatbot dialogue dataset about booking vacations with the hopes to make chatbots more intelligent.  Maluuba accomplished this task by having two humans communicate via a chatbox, no vocal dialogue was exchanged.  One human was trying to find the best price for a flight, while the other human who played chatbot used a database to find the information.  Travel-related chatbots are some of the dumber of the species, because travel planning requires a lot of details, content comprehension, and digesting multiple information sources.

What makes travel planning more difficult is that users often change the topic of their conversation. Simultaneously you might discuss your plan to go to Waterloo, Montreal, and Toronto. We humans have no trouble with keeping apart different plans people make while talking. Unfortunately, If users explore multiple options before booking, computers tend to run into problems. Most chatbots forget everything you talked about when you suddenly enter a new destination.

Maluuba’s dataset is like enrolling a chatbot in a travel agent course and it will benefit anyone interested in a travel planning chatbot.  Maluuba is one of many companies, not just Microsoft owned, that are sharing their own expertise and building specific chatbot datasets.  One such company is Bitext, but their expertise lies in a number of languages they can teach a chatbot.

Whitney Grace, May 23, 2017

Wake up and Smell the Social Equality, Silicon Valley

The article on Digital Trends titled Alexa, Why Aren’t You a Dude? How Female Digital Assistants Reinforce Stereotypes investigates the overwhelming tendency towards female personas for digital assistants from Alexa to Siri to Cortana to Ok, Google. Mansplainers beware, the author notes that Siri allows for different genders and accents, but the more important point to locate is the default equivocation of women with subservience. The article articulates,

Both Apple and Google have both stated a desire to make their digital assistants more sophisticated, giving users a sense of a relationship rather than a device. It’s a potentially troublesome phenomenon as the makers of anthropomorphic assistants to accent non-threatening and subservient qualities to achieve social acceptance. Scarier still is the idea that digital assistants are not only reflecting gender bias, but causing it. Kids are already anthropomorphizing their robot friends, and also bossing them around…

The article is chock full of quotes from smart people calling for an end to defaulting to female voices, or for improving the design with social equality in mind. But who is really designing these digital assistants? We know that women are vastly underrepresented in Silicon Valley, and it is an unfortunate reality that the people driving these huge cultural influences might have no concept of their own bias. They have created a dream woman for men and waking nightmare for women.

Chelsea Kerwin, May 22, 2017

How Voice Assistants Are Shaping Childhood

The Straits Times examines how AI assistants may affect child development and family interactions in, “When Alexa the Voice Assistant Becomes One of the Kids.” As these devices make their way into homes, children are turning to them (instead of parents) for things like homework help or satisfying curiosity. Some experts warn the “relationships” kids experience with AIs could have unintended consequences.  Writer Michael S. Rosenwald cites University of Maryland’s Allison Druin when he notes:

This emotional connection sets up expectations for children that devices cannot or were not designed to meet, causing confusion, frustration and even changes in the way kids talk or interact with adults.

The effects could go way beyond teaching kids they need not use “please” and “thank you.” How will developers address this growing concern?

Cynthia Murrell, May 19, 2017

Fun with Alexa

Developers are having fun casting Alexa’s voice onto other talking objects. On the heels of the Alexa Billy Bass, there is now a skull version aptly named ”Yorick,” we learn from CNet’s write-up, “Fear Alexa With this Macabre Talking Skull Voice Assistant.” Reporter Amanda Kooser explains that the project uses:

… A three-axis talking skull robot (with moving eyes), powered speakers, Raspberry Pi, and AlexaPi software that turns the Raspberry Pi into an Alexa client.

Kooser finds it unsettling to hear a weather forecast in Alexa’s voice emerge from a robotic skull, but you can see the effect for yourself in the article’s embedded video. Developer ViennaMike has posted instructions for replicating his Yorick Project. I wonder what robotic knickknack Alexa’s voice will emanate from next?

Cynthia Murrell, May 18, 2017


Amazon Controls the Voice Controlled

Voice-controlled speakers that can answer questions, schedule appointments, play music, order products, and do many more activities are a luxury product.  Google Home, Lenovo, LG, Harmon Kardon, and Mattel have their own fans, but Amazon remains the top seller in the market with Echo dot products loaded with Alexa.  Tech Crunch explained how Amazon dominates the market in the article, “Amazon To Control 70 Percent Of The Voice-Controlled Speaker Market This Year.”

Amazon controls an astonishing 70.6 percent of the voice-controlled speaker market and the current trends show that consumers prefer to stick with one type of speaker, instead of buying a competitor.  Compatibility issues apparently weigh heavy on their minds.  The Google Home is predicted to grow from its 23.8 percent as it reaches more people, but for now, Amazon will remain in control.  Amazon’s marketing plan will certainly be hard to beat:

Amazon’s strategy with Alexa is to allow the assistant to extend beyond just voice-controlled speakers it manufacturers. The company has also included the assistant in its Amazon mobile shopping app, and has made it available to third-parties for use in their own hardware and software applications.

Google, however, is known to make decent and less expensive products than most of the bigger name companies, such as phones and laptops.  One other thing to consider is the quality of Alexa’s conversation skills.  Bitext, one of the best-kept secrets related to sentimental analytics, has many major clients, including a popular search engine.  Bitext’s clients deploy its technology to improve a chatbot’s skills.

Whitney Grace, May 18, 2017

Extremely Niche Skills

If this is any indication, we may be in for some extremely specialized Alexa “skills.” Pitchfork News announces, “Alexa Can Now Name Your Band.” The relevant skill, reasonably titled Band Name Generator, looks  to be a simple random word generator, having made such profound suggestions as “The Cautiously Illustrious” and “Drip Upward.” The brief write-up observes:

If you hear the perfect name, tell Alexa ‘awesome name, thanks’ and she’ll say ‘I hope I helped. Your mom said you are very talented. I’m sure she’s right and your band rocks’.

On the other hand, if you dislike a suggestion, another is just a phrase away. Will such limited skills provide enough entertainment to warrant the effort of downloading them? I suppose we will find out.

Cynthia Murrell, May 17, 2017

Not All Amazon Alexa Skills Are Created Equal

The Amazon Alexa Skills store is very similar to the Apple App Store.  One of the ways they are alike is that some of the Skills are worthless, just like some of the apps are worthless.  The My IT Forum explains how to tell a good Skill from a bad one in the post, “Alexa Tip: Troubleshooting Alexa Skills.”

The way to troubleshoot an Alexa Skills is like turning a computer on and off.  Sometimes you have to delete and redownload the Skill, other times you have to do other things:

If a Skill doesn’t “enable” or stops working after a period of time, the first step to troubleshooting is to locate the Skill in the Alexa app or on the web and disable and re-enable it. If this doesn’t work, you may have to either reboot Alexa (remove power and wait for her power up again), or force Alexa into Setup mode to have the device reset connections.

Turning Skills off and on again?  One would think we would have figured out ways to make any technology work without having to do that.  However, some pieces of technology are not worth trying to fix and result in more headaches than helpfulness.  That is when you give up and try to find another Skill that provides comparable services.

Whitney Grace, May 16, 2017


Los Angeles Relies on Chatbot for City Wide Communication

Many people groan at the thought of having to deal with any government entity.  It is hard to get a simple question answered, because red tape, outdated technology, and disinterested workers run the show.  But what if there was a way to receive accurate information from a chipper federal employee?  I bet you are saying that is impossible, but Government Technology explains that “Los Angeles, Microsoft Unveil Chip: New Chatbot Project Centered On Streamlining.”

LA’s chipper new employee is a chatbot named Chip (pun intended) that stands for “City Hall Internet Personality.”  Developed by Microsoft, Chip assists people through the Los Angeles Business Assistance Virtual Network (BAVN).  “He” has helped more than 180 people in twenty-four hours and answered more than 1400 queries.  So far Chip has researched contract opportunities, search for North American Industry System codes, and more.

Chip can be trained to “learn,” and has already been backloaded with knowledge more than tripling his answer base from around 200 to roughly 700 questions. He “curates” the answers from what he knows.  Through an extensible platform and Application Program Interface (API) programming, the bot can connect to any data or back-end system…and in the future will likely take on new languages.

Chip’s developers are well aware that voice-related technology coupled with artificial intelligence is the way most computers appear to be headed.  Users want a sleeker interaction between themselves and a computer, especially as life speeds up.  Natural-sounding conversation and learning are the biggest challenges for AI, but companies like Bitext that develop the technology to improve computer communication are there to help.

Whitney Grace, May 16, 2017

Alexa Makes Reading as Simple as ABC

Amazon Alexa might be useful in changing your home’s temperature, ordering a product off Amazon, and scheduling your day, but it is also a helpful tool to download and read books from Audible and for the Kindle.  The My IT Forum shares how “Alexa Tip: Locating Kindle Books Alexa Can Read.”

Audio books are a wonderful way to read the latest bestseller while exercising, cleaning your house, or getting other work done.  Amazon Alexa can read books to you, either through one of the many audio book skills, including Audible or through the growing number of Kindle books that use Alexa’s playback feature.  How do you know if a Kindle book can be read out loud?

When you purchase eBooks from Amazon, look for the Whispersync for Voice-Ready and Audible Narration Ready statements in the book’s description…You might already have a few eBooks you’ve purchased that have either been converted to narration-ready, or you purchased already not knowing. To see which books are Alexa-capable…

Open the Alexa app for iOS, Android, or on the web (

Open Settings and go to Music & Books.

At the bottom of the page, tap or click on Kindle Books to be taken to the screen of Alexa-capable Kindle eBook purchases.”

Bibliophiles will read twice as many books with the help of a digital assistant.  They will no longer have an excuse to not dusting their bookshelves and vacuuming the house.

Whitney Grace, May 15, 2017