Amazon Phone Thinly Disguised as Alexa Calling

Amazon once tried to release its own phone, but it proved a failure.  Amazon is trying the venture once again as a feature on its smart assistant Alexa called “Alexa Calling.  Alexa Calling allows users to send free voice calls and messages through Echo devices.  It does not come as a surprise, however, that there is a design flaw, this one related to privacy.  The Tech Portal explains more about the privacy issue in, “Privacy Flaw: Why You Should Think Twice Before Enabling Alexa Calling?”

It seems like enable Alexa Calling would be a good idea.  You could call or text anyone for free without evening picking up a phone.  The problem is that when the feature is enabled, anyone can access your contacts list if they can access the speaker.  They will also be able to listen to calls and messages.  Even worse is that Alexa Calling does not allow users to curate their contact list, rather everyone is added.

The absolute worst problem is this:

What’s even more creepy (at least I think it is) is the fact, if you have blocked someone’s number on your phone, won’t matter when s/he calls on the Echo device. YES, they can call and you can do absolutely nothing as of now to prevent this from happening. This is because Alexa just uses your number and not your phone and the settings for voice calls. Hence, you cannot block the incoming calls at all.

When Amazon was asked about blocking unwanted callers on Alexa Calling, their reply was there currently was not any way to do it.  Good job Amazon, another failure in communication.

Whitney Grace, May 25, 2017

Alexa Denies She Is a Spy

According to Amazon, it was just a glitch, but Alexa’s response to one user’s queries raised suspicions. In “Alexa, Are You Connected to the CIA?”, New York Magazine reports one Alexa user posed that very question to the virtual assistant. Writer Madison Malone Kircher reveals:

First, the person asks if Alexa would lie: Alexa says she always tries to tell the truth …. Next, the person asks what the CIA is: Alexa gives a boilerplate definition. And finally, they ask if Alexa is connected to the CIA. Alexa’s response: crickets.

There was apparently a video, but it has since been removed. Don’t bother trying to reproduce the experiment; an update to the story explains Alexa now responds with, “No, I work for Amazon.” Good answer.

Cynthia Murrell, May 24, 2017

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

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

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

 

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 (http://alexa.amazon.com).

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

Investment Bank Approximates $10B in Amazon Revenue Through Alexa by 2020

The optimistic article on CNBC titled Amazon’s Voice Assistant Alexa Could Be a $10 Billion ‘Mega-Hit’ by 2020: Research breaks down the argument by one investment bank (RBC Capital Markets) for Alexa becoming an earnings juggernaut for Amazon by 2020. The article does point out that other investors are less confident in how Alexa will translate into revenue. RBC explores device sales, shopping sales, and platform revenues to make their projections. The article expands,

The investment bank said it estimates totally retail revenue per active Amazon customer will be around $350 by the end of 2017. If this grows 5 percent annually it means the revenue per customer will be $400 by 2020. Alexa devices could increase spending between 5 percent and 15 percent or $40 per customer.

IF RBC is correct about the total install base of 128 million by 2020, then shopping incremental revenue will be roughly $5 billion. Of course, that depends on how many people purchase Alexa devices. RBC estimates a 40% adoption rate in the US and a 25% rate globally. Additional revenues will also come into play through the creation of a marketplace for the “skills” (akin to apps) that Alexa uses. Let the high stakes betting commence!

Chelsea Kerwin, May 12, 2017

The Pros and Cons of Alexa Controlled Smart Power Outlets

The article titled Save 38% on the TP-LINK Wi-Fi Smart Plug, Works With Amazon Alexa – Deal Alert on MacWorld suggests seizing on a deal for a smart plug, or power outlet. The power outlet can be controlled from anywhere using a smartphone, and might help close the gap between American and European outlets, the latter of which often have on/off switches to avoid wasting energy while things are plugged in. The article details,

Using your smartphone, you can turn devices on & off, set programs to turn them on & off at set times while you’re away, or engage a “countdown timer.”… The HS100 is also compatible with Amazon Alexa, for voice control.

Besides the convenience and energy savings, reviewers also mention that you can group together controllers for a command like “Alexa, turn on the living room lights.” For those with a bit of the hoarder in them, this could be extremely useful to brightening a room without digging around for cords and switches. Fewer rave reviews mention some issues with TV compatibility or errors following power outages.

Chelsea Kerwin, May 11, 2017