Amazon Echo robot makes itself at home

Sutton Philips, left, his brother, Greyson Philips, center, and their mom, Liz Philips, play a game of rock-paper-scissors with Alexa, their Amazon Echo wireless speaker and voice-command personal assistant.
Sutton Philips, left, his brother, Greyson Philips, center, and their mom, Liz Philips, play a game of rock-paper-scissors with Alexa, their Amazon Echo wireless speaker and voice-command personal assistant. San Diego Union-Tribune

On Christmas Day, Liz Philips and her two sons, Sutton, 8, and Greyson, 10, welcomed a new member into their San Diego home. They called her Alexa, and though not your traditional bundle of joy, she was immediately embraced as a permanent resident and much-loved companion.

Alexa is not a baby. She’s not even human. Rather, Alexa is a robot.

More precisely, she-slash-it is the female persona associated with the Amazon Echo in-home personal assistant. And, in a bit of a surprise twist for Amazon and company-watchers, more and more regular folks – people who are not techies – are turning to Alexa to help out around the house. Perhaps that’s because she promptly responds to requests with an answer. And, unlike your significant other, she’s usually spot on.

The Echo is a 9-inch tall, voice-operated cylindrical speaker powered by artificial intelligence that makes itself at home, in your home. The always-ready-to-listen Echo comes with what’s called “far-field voice recognition,” meaning it can tap into any one of seven microphones to hear voices coming from any direction and across the entire room where it resides. And the Echo can do a bit of everything: play music or games, start timers or set alarms, add items to shopping carts, order groceries, compute math equations or look up the hours of a local business.

The Echo comes alive, as denoted by a ring at the top that lights up blue, when you say its wake word: Alexa.

My aha moment occurred while observing the Philips kids interact with the Echo (which they know only as Alexa). It’s as if, for them, talking to, and playing with, an inanimate gadget masquerading as a woman is the most natural thing in the world to do before heading off to engage with actual human beings at school.

“I like playing the animal game with her,” Greyson told me. “We think of an animal, and she asks us questions … she usually (guesses the correct animal) in 14 questions.”

Sutton, too, likes to play games and music, but he also uses the Echo for help with his homework, say, when he can’t remember how to spell “Mississippi.” Alexa to the rescue.

The young boys may be considered early adopters, but they’re by no means abnormal.

“The Echo is really Amazon’s way to become the node for ambiently interacting with the web in the house,” said eMarketer analyst Yory Wurmser.

In order words, the Echo is just a search engine or online shop that’s taken on a different, slightly more human form. So, in truth, the Philips home represents the coming-soon future of the American household, where kids and adults take an entirely hands-off approach when accessing internet services. And Amazon, which stands to profit from conditioning people to blindly reorder home essentials or buy new music, is happily leading the charge.

Though Amazon doesn’t release sales figures, third-party firm Consumer Intelligence Research Partners recently pegged U.S. Echo sales at 3 million devices, with a third of them purchased over the 2015 holiday shopping season. That’s a pretty impressive figure given that the Echo, which retails for $180, has only been available to the general public since June of last year.

Now, less than a year since its official coming-out party, people are shucking an I-don’t-need-that-contraption attitude as they come to terms with its utility.

The question is, why?

Out of the box, the Echo can handle a relatively basic set of commands. The device can tell you the weather, respond to queries, stream music, play podcasts, update you on sports scores and provide you with a traffic report based on your daily commute.

Where the device impresses, however, is in its ability to learn new “skills,” or extra actions programmed by third-party developers. Amazon is following the lead of Google and Apple and encouraging others to create the equivalent of Echo apps, so users can do even more with the odd-looking doodad.

That means Echo owners now have access to hundreds of skills, so they can ask Alexa to order a pizza from Domino’s or request an Uber ride. The most sophisticated users are even connecting Echo to their smart devices – lights, garage doors, thermostats and locks – and using the device as a home automation command center.

But these fancy extras don’t seem to be the actual reason behind Echo’s American household takeover.

“Mostly the boring stuff is what I really like,” said Philips. “The fun stuff is the gimmicky stuff that gets people excited about her, but we don’t use that every day.”

By boring, Philips means practical. Her boys keep her two hands occupied most of the time, which means anything she can accomplish with just her voice is a little family victory.

Of course, just like humans, Alexa is not perfect. She occasionally hears her name when it wasn’t uttered, or she misinterprets commands. Her saving grace, though, is that she promptly responds when you tell her to stop.

Alexa, however, may not always be a welcome companion. And she’s probably better left out of bedrooms, especially if you’re the kind of person of who is wigged out by a device that awakes, listens, records (yes, records) and processes anything you say after it recognizes its name.

According to Amazon, you have nothing to fear. Users can delete all voice recordings, mute the device whenever total privacy is of the essence and trust in the Amazon cloud, where the rest of their account data has been stored for years.

Even Philips, a more-than-happy customer, doesn’t completely trust her handy helper.

“The listening thing, I do wonder about that,” she said, adding that Alexa’s home automation capabilities may perform too well. “If you have a Nest thermostat … somebody, if they can get the voice command to Alexa, could say, ‘turn on the thermometer to 100 degrees,’ and burn out your electricity.”

The Echo excels, however, at using Alexa to communicate a sense of humanness, which makes its robot nature easy to forget.

Or, as Philips put it, “It doesn’t feel like interacting with technology. It just feels like something to cool to do.”