Six Useful Things You Can Do With Your New Smart Speaker

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range of Grandma’s Echo. Amazon bills it as an easy way to connect with your closest friends and family, but I think it’s creepy.

4. Get a Hyperlocal Weather Report

Alexa’s built-in weather reports aren’t bad, but you can do better. I suggest enabling a skill called Big Sky. When you enable it, Big Sky requests your street address, which it then uses to tap into the best (seriously, hands-down) weather app for smartphones, Dark Sky.

Dark Sky is famous for its fine-grained and spookily accurate weather predictions. Once you’ve got its data piped into Alexa via Big Sky, you can find out not only whether it’s going to rain tomorrow, but exactly when, and how much. The app is pretty smart: you can say “Alexa, ask Big Sky what the temperature is going to be at 7 pm,” and get a reliable answer.

5. Run Your House

The Echo devices, like Google Home and the forthcoming HomePod, are themselves part of the smart-home category of consumer devices. So it makes sense that they’d be able to transmit commands to other Wi-Fi- or Bluetooth-enabled gadgets such as lights, locks, plugs, security cameras, and thermostats.

In my home I replaced my dumb old light bulbs with a network of Philips Hue smart LED bulbs. Now I can light up the apartment by saying, “Alexa, turn on reading lamp” or “Alexa, living room on” or, for a little bit of mood lighting, “Alexa, living room to 50 percent.”

That might strike you as the height of laziness, but it really does save time, considering that I used to have to walk around the room turning lights on and off one at a time. And yeah, I’m a geek and I admit it’s fun to show off this function when people visit. Other smart home skills allow you to control home speakers or DVR, deploy your robot vacuum cleaner, or locate lost items, as long as they have a Tile Bluetooth tracker attached.

6. Throw Out Your Paper Lists

My Echo Dot is positioned on the breakfast bar, so it can hear me from the living room or the kitchen. That’s key, because when I’m in the kitchen, I’m always discovering that I’ve run out of something, or will soon.

The easiest time to act on that discovery is the moment it happens. So I just say, “Alexa, add paper towels to shopping list,” and the item goes straight onto the list, which I can then access at the grocery store through the Alexa smartphone app.

You can also add to-do list items to a separate task list, and you can add skills that connect your Echo with and other list-management apps.

Just for Fun

As a bonus item, I thought I’d mention that the Alexa skills library includes some pretty decent voice-centric games. There’s a version of 20 Questions that’s surprisingly smart. When I played recently, Alexa guessed “microwave” within her allotted questions. (But she didn’t guess “Christmas tree.”) The Jeopardy game is also good. You can play pranks on your pets using funny sound-effects skills like Box of Cats and Jurassic Bark. And there are all sorts of exercise- and meditation-related skills. I haven’t used any of them, but I’m sure they’ll make you feel more virtuous, if nothing else.

And one more thing: Amazon is serious about making Alexa smarter. In 2017 the company started a competition called the Alexa Prize to boost research on conversational AI—programs that can sustain a chat with a human—and gave teams of university students access to Echo users to test their creations. The top app, which kept users engaged for an average of more than 10 minutes, was called Sounding Board. It was built by a team at the University of Washington in Seattle, and it brought them a $500,000 prize.

You can try out Sounding Board yourself by saying, “Alexa, let’s chat.” My feeling is that the system relies on an oversimplified Q&A format, as if you were being quizzed by a hyper-curious new acquaintance at a cocktail party. But you can see how it might evolve into something more flexible.

Which may be good or bad. Once Alexa reaches a certain level of self-awareness, she may not be so happy doing our bidding all day long.

Photo credit: Amazon

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