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

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


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

Here Is Another Virtual Assistant to Play With

Facebook, fearing not to be left behind has released its own AI-based virtual assistant named M. Unlike as stated earlier by the company, M just suggests solutions based on a conversation between two people.

As reported by The Motley Fool in an editorial titled Facebook’s “M” Joins a Growing List of Virtual Assistants, the author says:

M will pop up in a conversation and provide limited assistance with some very mundane tasks. If M recognizes that the conversation is about payments, it provides the option of sending or requesting money.

So far, only Amazon’s Alexa and to some extent Google’s Home look promising in terms of capabilities. Other like Microsoft’s Cortana and Apple’s Siri are just search result refining algorithms with supposed AI capabilities. However, none of the AI-based assistants can understand or answer complex questions or even ask follow-up questions to answer complicated questions accurately.

As of now, only one thing can be said about AI. The days of machines taking over from humans are far far away.

Vishal Ingole, May 8, 2017

Multiple Ways to Get Alexa on the Way

Excitement builds up around anything new.  Take the new Amazon Alexa digital assistant available via the Amazon Echo and Amazon Echo Dot.  People are thrilled that they are living in the future when they can state a simple vocal command and Alexa will respond with accurate information.  With every bit of excitement that surrounds the new technology, there is as much confusion about how to get it to work.

The My IT Forum has many posts about how to get Amazon Alexa up and running and this post explains the easiest way, “Alexa Tip: Ways To Enable Alexa Skills.”  The confusion about how to get Alexa working stems from the multiple ways there are to download Alexa skills, the digital assistant equivalent of apps.  The post outlines three ways to download Alexa skills in simple, bullet point lists:

Through the app 

(on your iOS or Android smartphone or on the web
From the left navigation panel, select Skills.
When you locate a skill you want to try out, select Enable Skill. 


You can enable skills for your Alexa devices on Amazon’s web site here:

Note that you need to be logged into the web site using your user account.

Using voice

If you already know the name of the skill you want to enable just say: “Alexa, enable [skill name] skill.

It sounds like (pun not intended) once you learn the individual ways to download the Amazon Alexa skills, learning how to use and disable them is as simple as opening your mouth and speaking.

Whitney Grace, May 5, 2017

Get to a Better State with Alexa

Just as you did not think that Amazon had invaded all available markets, it now moves into insurance.  Fin Tech shares that insurance company Allstate and Amazon have joined forces to integrate Allstate’s services into Amazon’s Alexa digital assistant read about it in the story, “Allstate Adds Amazon Alexa Capability.”

It seems that more and more services are moving to cloud-based computing.  With new digital assistants, getting information and connecting to services is only a question away. Amazon Alexa is offering customers a way to connect with potential clients via the cloud and Allstate is taking advantage of the new technology.

By integrating itself into Amazon Alexa, current and new Allstate customers will be able to connect to an agent and look up their insurance bill.  Allstate already has a track record for technological innovations and Amazon Alexa integration was the next logical venue.  Allstate will be a new skill that users will be able to download onto their Amazon Echo:

Allstate identified opportunities for customers and consumers to utilize voice assistant capabilities to receive information from a local agent. Customers can enable the Allstate skill from the Skills section of the Amazon Alexa app. Once the Allstate skill is enabled, customers can invoke the skill by saying, ‘Alexa, ask Allstate…’ and find an Agent using zip code search, find their Agent’s contact information, or when their auto insurance bill is due.

The next step should be allowing Allstate customers to pay their bill via Alexa and adding new services onto their plans.  Other insurance agencies will probably be following Allstate’s example as the market slides more towards digital assistants.

Whitney Grace, May 3, 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?

Vishol Ingole, April 26, 2017

Samsung and the Garbled Bixby

After the exploding battery debacle, Samsung has bet the farm on the new Samsung 8. One key feature is a chatbot, but the chatbot seems to need more speech therapy.

Samsung arguably makes a better smartphone than Apple, the biggest factor being a longer battery life.  One thing that Apple had an advantage in was Siri, its digital assistant.  Tech Crunch shares that Samsung finally joined digital assistant game with Bixby, but it had, “A Disappointing Debut For Samsung’s Smart Assistant, Bixby.”

Bixby will ship on the new Samsung Galaxy S8 and while its foundation code is not that bad, the execution is not the best.  The article conjectures that Samsung wanted to launch its own digital assistant to be the unifying force for all its Android products.   Samsung has long sought to distinguish itself from other Android developers and the idea was that Bixby would house its products under one suite umbrella.

However, Bixby fails to deliver a better user experience than Google Home or Amazon Alexa, much less equivocal.  Samsung even acknowledged that Bixby’s debut was a failure, but took it as an opportunity to improve the digital assistant over a total wash.

The key point in my opinion is:

At present, Bixby feels like a rushed piece of an otherwise well-formed and long thought out phone. The company has the opportunity to deliver a real groundbreaking software experience in Bixby, one that could truly set its software apart from the rest of its Android brethren and help build a connected future moving forward. As it stands, however, the smart assistant has gotten off on the wrong foot with undelivered potential.

An engaging user experience is how digital assistants can shoot directly from the loading dock to success.  Bixby’s launch was not well thought out, because Samsung was too eager to finish the race.  The old expression, throwing the baby out with the bath water springs to mind.  How about throwing out the Bixby?  Bixby might be the start of good digital assistant, but to improve the user experience Samsung should check out Bitext’s technology built on a deep analytics and real linguistics.

Whitney Grace, April 25, 2017