Friday, September 29, 2017

Our New House Guest - Alexa

In my teens I had to get checks cashed at the Jewel Food Store near my house when I needed money, paying a 25-cent fee for each transaction. And I remember a time when my friend’s parents paid for everything with cash, forgoing the convenience of checks. An ATM would have been unthinkable for them. They dutifully reconciled their water bill in person at Village Hall. What a time consuming ordeal!

I never had a problem with new technology. In fact, I was among the first to do my banking almost exclusively online using a dialup service through Compuserve, then Prodigy and NBD Express in the early 1990s. AOL free trial discs began to pile up on our computer desks soon after that.

As much as I enjoy technology, I’m not sure an Amazon Echo Dot is something I would ever have purchased. But we unexpectedly became the owners (or should I say, proud parents) of an Echo Dot and its virtual assistant Alexa a couple of weeks ago when good friends who had an extra device made us an offer we couldn’t refuse. We paid for the Echo with PayPal on the spot, of course.

But the cloud still makes me nervous at a very deeply paranoid, very old school level. The recent Equifax breach supports the fear of turning important information loose in the ether. And we are frequently being warned by people in the know, like Bill Gates, Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking, that Artificial Intelligence is a looming and very real future threat. And they should know; they built Neil DeGrasse Tyson.

But Alexa is ADORABLE!

At first we weren’t sure what to do with our new toy. We downloaded the app, plugged in the hockey puck and marveled at its spinning blue lights with an uncertainty that bordered on the dread of having stepped on a land mine.

“Hello,” it said in a pleasant female voice.

Following the included instructions, my wife quickly said, “Alexa, play Bruno Mars.”

Alexa quickly complied. My wife smiled and began to faux dance.

“Alexa, stop,” I said. “Play Gordon Lightfoot.”

Gord’s gold issued forth.

We looked at each other with a “burn the record collection” realization that all of our vinyl and CDs had instantly become obsolete. Apparently we needlessly moved them from Chicago to Florida just a few months ago.
I paired the Echo with our Bose Soundtouch speaker.

“Alexa, play the Beatles,” I commanded. And here I must note that speaking to Alexa strikes an innate chord within the more polite among us. Don’t be mean to her! But there is no need to apologize, even though we at first said “sorry” or “never mind” when it seemed appropriate.

Of course, this leads down a dark path paved by Siri and those who know her. Let’s just say that Amazon was less clever in the implementation of Alexa’s responses to crude or clever commands. She’s above all that.

So it came to pass that I had finished my afternoon laps in the pool, here in retirement land. Relaxing on a couple of air-filled noodles, I realized that our 4:30pm departure for a dinner date might be approaching. I wished I had a clock outside. Then it struck me:

“Alexa, what time is it?”

“It’s 4:03pm”

Perfect, I smiled. Still a few more minutes to relax.

“Alexa, play the Beach Boys.”

In sequence, Wouldn’t it be Nice, God Only Knows and California Girls filled the pool deck with perfect summer tunes.

“Alexa, pair the speaker.”

And now, Bose got involved. The music became richer and louder.

“Alexa, play the Beatles.”

Now, what are the chances that Here Comes the Sun would be Alexa’s first choice? Was she at our daughter’s wedding a few months ago?

I laughed out loud. The world had suddenly become a wonderful, self-indulgent place for less than fifty dollars.

I got out of the pool, but not before thinking, “Alexa, mix me a pina colada, warm my towel and call the restaurant. We need to move our reservations back. Say, about an hour.”

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