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  It is hard to get a simple question answered, because red tape, outdated technology, and disinterested workers run the show.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 (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

Amazon Aims to Ace the Chatbots

Amazon aims to insert itself into every aspect of daily life and the newest way it does is the digital assistant Alexa.  Reuters reports that, “Amazon Rolls Out Chatbot Tools In Race To Dominate Voice-Powered Tech,” explaining how Amazon plans to expand Alexa’s development.  The retail giant recently released the technology behind Alexa to developers, so they can build chat features into apps.

Amazon is eager to gain dominance in voice-controlled technology.  Apple and Google both reign supreme when it comes to talking computers, chatbots, and natural language processing.  Amazon has a huge reach, perhaps even greater than Apple and Google, because people have come to rely on it for shopping.  Chatbots have a notorious history for being useless and Microsoft’s Tay even turned into a racist, chauvinist program.

The new Alexa development tool is called Alexa Lex, which is hosted on the cloud.  Alexa is already deployed in millions of homes and it is fed a continuous data stream that is crucial to the AI’s learning:

Processing vast quantities of data is key to artificial intelligence, which lets voice assistants decode speech. Amazon will take the text and recordings people send to apps to train Lex – as well as Alexa – to understand more queries.

That could help Amazon catch up in data collection. As popular as Amazon’s Alexa-powered devices are, such as Echo speakers, the company has sold an estimated 10 million or more.

Amazon Alexa is a competent digital assistant, able to respond to vocal commands and even offers voice-only shop via Amazon.  As noted, Alexa’s power rests in its data collection and ability to learn natural language processing.  Bitext uses a similar method but instead uses trained linguists to build its analytics platform.

Whitney Grace, May 11, 2017

Alexa Pairs up with Established Lock Company for Smart Deadbolt

The article on Digital Trends titled Protecting Your Home is Easier Than Ever With This Alexa-Connected Smart Lock tells the story of Schlage, an Allegion brand establishes nearly 100 years ago, and its leap into voice activation technology through a partnership with Amazon Alexa. What will this mean for users? No more keys, remote control over your locks, and enhanced alarms in case of unwelcome visitors. The article states,

Smart home technology is all about incrementalism, whether it’s consumer adoption or brands integrating with mega-technology platforms,” said Rob Martens, futurist and vice president of strategy and partnerships at Allegion. “Schlage is committed to providing the ultimate security and convenience, and we are proud to now integrate with Alexa to provide consumers with added convenience through Alexa-enabled devices.

The convenience and security of the system will be a selling point for people who are forgetful and for people who worry about safety. There is an anti-pick shield to prevent tampering with the lock, and the option of choosing and tracking up to 30 individual codes that can be customized to specific times. Smart houses will soon be full of people sleeping soundly, assured that Alexa has their backs— and their locks.

Chelsea Kerwin, May 10, 2017

Will the Real AI Please Stand Up

Bots, the tiny AI based assistants are being touted as harbingers of next technology revolution. However, at present, bots are just repackaged virtual assistants with capabilities to understand human speech.

VentureBeat in an article titled The Sudden Rise of the Headless AI says:

In the early days of graphical user interface (GUI), the point-and-click interface provided different ways of achieving the same tasks you could do on the command line; now most bots provide an additional channel with which to do tasks you likely often do another way.

The software and services industry that generates revenues to the tune of $4 trillion annually will undergo a sea of changes once bots become intelligent enough. For instance, sales predictive bots by digging through Big Data could predict when a person will buy something he or she needs. What do you think will be the value of such bot and how it will affect the industry that spends so much of time and effort on generating sales leads?

Vishal Ingole, May 9, 2017

How I Learned to Stop Typing and Love Vocal Search

Search Engine Watch reported a mind-blowing fact that is not that hard to fathom, but still amazing in the article, “Top Tips On Voice Search: Artificial Intelligence, Location, And SEO.”  The fact is that by 2020 it is projected that there will be 21 billion Internet-connected devices.  Other neat facts are that 94 percent of smartphone users frequently carry it with them and 82 percent never turn their phone off.

As one can imagine, users are growing more reliant on voice search rather than typing in their queries.  Another habit is that users do not want to scroll through results, instead, they want one, immediate answer delivered with 100 percent accuracy.  This has increased reliance on digital assistants, which are equipped to handle voice search.  Why is voice search on the rise, however?

Mary Meeker’s Internet Trends Report looked at the reasons why customers use voice search, as well as which device settings are the most popular. The report indicated that the usefulness of voice search when a user’s hands or vision were otherwise occupied was the top reason that people enjoyed the technology, followed by a desire for faster results and difficulty typing on certain devices.

Where do users access voice search? It turns out that, more often than not, consumers are opting to use voice-activated devices is at home, followed by the car and on-the-go.

The power behind voice search is artificial intelligence using natural language processing, semantics, search history, and user proclivities, and other indicators.  Voice search is still an imperfect technology and it does need improvements, such as being able to speak the human language fluently.  It is not hard to make a computer speak, but it is hard to make it comprehend what it says.  Companies invested in vocal search should consider looking at Bitext’s linguistics platform and other products.

The article shares some tips on how to improve search, including using specific language and keywords, use markup to make sure content is ready to be displayed in Google, do not neglect apps, and other helpful advice.

Whitney Grace, May 9, 2017