consumer experience, technologies

Automation For The People

A Composed Communication blog on automation technology and the new Amazon Echo device.

Voice recognition is a key part of automation technologies which many knowledgeable tech-heads believe will drive human progress through the next part of this century. It’s said that automation is the big step to intelligently streamlining how we lead our lives.

The new Amazon Echo device.                                                                                © Composed Images


Automation technology

Automation technologies encompass lots of different and variously impressive stuff. From self-driving cars, automatically renewing online shopping subscriptions, programmed day-to-day reminders or smart meters which accurately predict, measure and bill utility use.

My understanding of its basic tenet is that we as human users input and actively do less.

Machines pick up the slack, intuitively learning from us about how we want things done. It’s a two-way process of sorts, but the machines do the hard graft. It’s accepted that they may make mistakes along the way, but ultimately they will make life better, smoother, easier.

Amazon Echo

I was wowed at the 2016 Turing Lecture by Robert Schukai’s talk of automation along these lines, ‘The Internet Of You, Me and Us’.

[Read the Composed piece: 2016 Turing Lecture 2016]

Integral to smart automation technology is the much discussed IBM Watson projecta ‘cognitive system enabling a new partnership between people and computers.’ But what really got me excited in the Turing Lecture was Schukai’s demonstration of the new voice-activated Amazon Echo.

Amazon UK finally made the Echo available several weeks ago and, much like a child craving a new toy, I wanted one badly.

How Does It Work?

“Alexa,” you can say to wake up and address the device, “play me Radiohead”. Or “Alexa, what’s the weather?” Or “Alexa, what’s the news?” This is in addition to basic commands of stopping, pausing, skipping, turning off in 30 minutes. After giving the command, the lights will briefly whirl as it processes the command, before responding.

Settings are controlled via the Echo’s smartphone app, Amazon Alexa, and your connected music service of choice – whether Spotify or Amazon’s own.

Behold the magical whirling lights!                                                                     © Composed Images


An impulse reaction is that this IS THE FUTURE. You are seduced by the super quick responsiveness of the Echo, reduced to silly giggles by how damned cool it is to command an audio device with your voice.  You can even yell at it from another room and it will respond, unlike your wife or dog. (Finally, something that actually listens to me!)

As an object too, it feels reassuringly solid, weighty, full of cleverness.

How Does It Not Work?

Initially I was disappointed that it needed to be connected to mains electricity. I had imagined easily being able to pick up and put down the cylinder around the house, in the office, kitchen, living room. Perhaps this was my misunderstanding. Battery bases are available but they are not cheap, and all currently appear to require shipping from the US.

As the first few days and weeks of using Alexa pass, you grow frustrated with certain things. It is not a flawless system, which perhaps explains why it is not priced higher. It does not readily recognise the names of certain artists or albums. It will often play a track with the same name as a band you wanted to play, by a band or artist you have never heard of.  Hearing an unfamiliar death metal explosion instead of a pretty ballad can be unnerving and annoying.

It’s easier to ask Alexa to play an artist than it is to play an album by an artist. The Echo can get confused, get it wrong, or just admit defeat in finding an artist.

When it does play an artist on command correctly, it plays their most popular tracks but can start repeating after only a handful. (Or at least it seemed to do this via Spotify).

To avoid the potential probable frustration, you naturally return to the manual way of finding and selecting music through your fingertips, which any Bluetooth speaker is capable of playing. Though not a listener of high sensitivity in terms of sound quality, to me it sounds sharp and clear.

Amazon promises that Alexa is getting smarter all the time and will get smarter the more you use it. I suppose there are certain highly personal intonations and enunciations of voice that take time to familiarise with.

That said, some words and artists, however much you request them, simply do not compute. Which can get frustrating. “Alexa, you’re an idiot!” elicits the response, “that’s not very nice to say”. Frustration has been planned for.

Changing How We Think About Music

The process of thinking about and selecting music is totally changed with the Amazon Echo. There’s a blind new world you’re navigating in your head, entirely devoid of words and artwork.

When you can just ask a box for an artist and, if it understands, you can have pretty much anything, it’s surprising how often you can find yourself at a total loss for ideas.

In trying to think about selecting music without any visual stimulus, I regularly freeze. It’s like the brain now needs to see words and artwork to make associations (essentially what the brain does) with any music, enabling you to choose some. Without any such stimuli, trying to suddenly pick a pleasantly soothing album you haven’t heard in a while becomes strangely difficult.

Open an app and look on a list of artists and you can make that decision in a few seconds. In the screenless big black wilderness of your brain, late at night, it can seem to take minutes, if it happens at all. I have found myself really straining at the effort (this is ridiculous, I know hundreds of suitable artists… I… I just can’t think of any).  Before giving up and sitting in silence.

[Read the Composed piece: An Introduction To Edtech]

Automation Now?

The Amazon Echo may well turn out to be an early champion for automation technology, as may Google’s self-driving car. Some folk think those will be commonplace in just a few years. There certainly seems to be powerful arguments for automation, in terms of increased efficiencies and the freeing up of time. That is, if it all works as it should.

But as with all technologies, it’s a lengthy evolution, a long and steep learning curve. How long it all takes to flower with total 100% assurance, and what solutions or solution creators will be the main drivers? Behind those questions lie the big bucks.

For now though let’s just sit back, try to enjoy the ride, and hope it doesn’t crash…

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