By Priscilla Lee,
Gabrielle Skilling gets dressed and enters the kitchen. She begins packing her lunch: leftovers from the previous day’s dinner. “Hey, Alexa, play the top 50 hits,” Skilling says to the little device sitting on the countertop.
As she makes herself an egg, a daily breakfast routine, Skilling asks Alexa for the weather. She heeds Alexa’s advice and grabs a light waterproof jacket. She heads out the door, ready to face her day at school.
Due to the continuous advancement of technology, owning an Amazon Echo has grown popular among families. Skilling, a sophomore at Davis High, notes many of her friends own different versions of the chatbot.
The increase in sales of these devices is no accident. “[New features with advanced capabilities] helped us to increase our sales for Alexa devices and services,” Santhosh Kumar from Amazon Customer Service said. These include playing music, getting information, controlling smart home devices, shopping and more, all by sound of the voice.
“It’s really useful if your hands are full,” Skilling said. She appreciates the feel of “human bonding” the device can create.
“I feel some of the greatest contributions AI will give us won’t just be knowledge discovery, but optimizing our existing lifestyles,” said Kevin Jesse, a second year Ph.D student at UC Davis studying artificial intelligence, machine learning, and natural language processing.
Working dad Henry Xiang compares the Echo device to a Bluetooth speaker, and believes as technology progresses, using voice systems like Alexa don’t mark someone “lazy.” His own use of the device is not frequent, for he believes using his voice is not that much simpler than opening the news or weather app on his phone.
Sometimes, while Xiang turns on the rice cooker in the process of making dinner, he asks, “Alexa, tell me the news.”
The possible invasion of privacy of the Amazon product has been a worry to some customers. “I have that concern… potentially it could be the risk,” Xiang said. However, Amazon is working to make sure “personal information remains secure,” according to Kumar.
Jesse concurrs, stating that Amazon takes a strong stance of protecting interactions. “Due to this anonymity, modeling the user’s needs [of a chatbot] can be a challenge,” said Jesse, who helped in the creation of Gunrock, the social bot that won the 2018 global Amazon Alexa Prize.
Though not everyone welcomes the intrusion of artificial intelligence into the home.
Sophomore Grace Ji says her family’s personal use of the device, mainly entertainment purposes like listening to music, makes time at home hectic. Ji complains family members often “clash” because of the differences in music taste along with the loud volume. “Sometimes it’s too loud when I’m studying,” she said.
Yet it appears many device owners enjoy using their Echo.
Skilling’s younger sister asks, “Hey, Alexa, what’s the update on my protein bars?” when she comes home, excited to see how they were tracked and plans to order them again using the device. “She eats so many in a day,” Skilling said.
Customers of different voice systems compare each device by its usefulness and quality of conversation. “I think the main difference is that Alexa has a name, which makes it easier for people to get attached to her,” said Adva Levin, founder of Pretzel Labs, a company focused on interactive family games on Alexa devices.
Many reasons for the increasing purchases include convenience, testing the ability of artificial intelligence, or plain self-amusement. “[It’s] just more fun than convenient,” Xiang said.
When the device is asked “why do people use you?” Alexa’s voice replies, “Because there’s a lot I can do.”