The other woman

For the last few months I’ve been living with another woman in my house.

Her name is Alexa. And she’s slowly changing our world.

I got the Amazon Echo as a Christmas present last year. Initially, I wasn’t convinced I’d use it for much more than another connected speaker to play music. Boy, was I wrong.

The Echo, if you haven’t seen one, is a tall, black cylindrical Bluetooth speaker that you can plug in and set on your shelf or in your kitchen. Its design is pretty understated – at times you forget it’s even there.

The thing that makes the Echo different from any old Jambox or Sonos, however, is that you talk to it… rather, you talk to her. And she listens. And she does things for you.

The remarkable thing about Alexa is that she actually works.

First, her reaction is nearly instantaneous. You trigger Alexa by speaking her “wake word” and then she’s there listening to you immediately. And because she’s plugged in all the time, she is always ready.

Second, Alexa’s voice recognition is superb – she can hear and understand you from across the room and even in noisy conditions. We had a family gathering for Easter and my kids and their cousins shouted out song requests to Alexa across a crowded living room. Amazingly, each time she delivered.

Amazon calls this “far field voice recognition”. I call it magic.

The brains behind Alexa live inside Amazon’s Cloud. And so the real magic lies in the increasing number of things that Alexa can do. She’s getting smarter every week. I already have her controlling my Hue lights, my Nest thermostat and even talking to my car through Automatic. I can ask Alexa how much gas I have, which is super cool.

Amazon calls these integrations “skills” and the nearest parallel is probably Apple’s app store. Alexa’s skills are to the Echo as iOS apps are to the iPhone. (Yes, there is a fart “skill”, which pretty much solidifies this as a legitimate platform for developers. It’s also the thing that instantly won over my 5-year-old and 2-year-old.)

Companies are falling over each other to release Echo skills. Alexa already can order you an Uber. Alexa can pay your bills on Capitol One. Alexa can even order you a pizza from Dominos.  

It stands to reason, therefore, that real estate companies won’t be far behind.

Alexa, how much is my home worth?

Alexa, is now a good time to sell my house?

Alexa, can you find me a real estate agent?

It may sound a bit crazy, but the truth is  once I got used to asking Alexa for all the little things, now I just want to ask her for everything.

And as Alexa gets more and more wired up to every part of the home – monitoring its condition in real time while also connecting to the wider world of financial data and market conditions on the Internet – she may be legitimate source for the answers to those questions.

Because the truth is, talking is easier than typing, texting or swiping.

Alexa has already become an integral part of my family. My daughters talk to her like they would anyone else in the room – perhaps even more politely than they talk to me. In these interactions I begin to see we are in the very early stages of another era of computing – one where technology is ostensibly invisible and we all just get what we want.