Alexa is the interactive voice assistant who knows everything about Amazon. Available across Amazon’s line of Echo speakers, smart thermostats, soundbars, lamps and lights, and right on your phone through the Alexa app, Alexa can do quick math for you, launch your favorite playlists, check news and weather, and control many of your smart home products.
Who/what is Alexa?
For most people, all you really need to know about Alexa is that it’s the name of the voice that comes out of Alexa-enabled speakers. Basically, Alexa is to Amazon what Siri is to Apple. Alexa is a voice you can ask questions and get answers to, like “What’s the weather in Chicago today?” Alexa has been built into many of Amazon’s services and can be used with products like the original Amazon Echo, Echo Dot, Echo Spot, Echo Show, or Amazon Fire TV.
But really, what exactly is Alexa? When you ask Alexa a question, what you’re doing is communicating with a cloud-based service. Amazon has designed the Alexa Voice Service (AVS) to mimic real conversations, but you’re actually using intuitive voice commands to have this service perform specific tasks. “Alexa” is simply the “wake word” that alerts the service to start listening to your voice. For most devices, just say the wake word to get a response.
According to the Amazon developer site, the Alexa Voice Service (AVS) lives in the cloud. Amazon AVS is an intelligent speech recognition and natural language understanding service. The service can be used to enable speech on any connected device that has a microphone and speaker. That’s why you’re starting to see Alexa on headphones and other devices. “Alexa is always getting smarter with new capabilities through machine learning,” reads Amazon’s developer site.
While Alexa is the official name for Amazon’s voice assistant, you can change this wake word to “Amazon,” “Computer,” or “Echo.” That’s a handy feature, especially if your name or the name of your partner or roommate is Alexa or something similar-sounding.
Apple has Siri. Google Home has the Google Assistant, which comes to life when you say “OK, Google.” Amazon has Alexa. But why? According to David Limp, the Amazon executive who oversaw the development of the service, the name “Alexa” was chosen for a number of reasons. First, the name “Alexa” goes back to the Library of Alexandria, which attempted to collect all the knowledge in the world. Amazon is trying to do the same. Alexa is always learning but, in theory, she should be a perfect source of information.
More practically, the service was named Alexa because it contains the rare “X” sound. Since this service is activated by voice, Amazon wanted to choose a name that wouldn’t be confused with other words that could accidentally wake up the device:
“We go through a series of names and the name is important both because of the personality it creates around the person and because of this cloud computer-based voice computer. But there is also computer science behind it,” Limp said. “If any of you have Echoes, you know that you only wake up when you hear the word ‘Alexa’, and the phonetics of that word and how that word is parsed and the fact that it has a strong consonant with the ‘X’ in it, it’s important to make sure it wakes up only when prompted. And so a combination of those two things allowed us to get closer to Alexa.”
Where can I use Alexa?
To use Alexa, you will need a device that integrates voice technology. This usually means an Amazon device, like the Echo, Echo Dot, or Echo Show, but this cloud-based personal voice assistant has also been integrated into Echo Auto and some third-party systems. Devices like Fire TV are also compatible with Alexa, as are some third-party devices: the Ecobee Switch+ light switch, the LG InstaView refrigerator, headphones (like Echo Buds and some Plantronics models), and the aforementioned Sonos One speaker. Someone even programmed Alexa to work with a Big Mouth Billy Bass.
Alexa has also become the center of many smart home systems, including Wink, SmartThings, and Logitech Harmony. You can also use the voice assistant to build your smart home piecemeal, as Alexa can pair with hubless devices like WeMo switches and Nest thermostats.
Here is a list of some of the best smart home devices that are compatible with Alexa.
What can Alexa do?
The list of commands that Alexa can understand seems to grow daily. Amazon calls these “skills” and you can even create your own skills through Amazon Blueprints. After Amazon’s review, you can even publish your own skills to the Amazon Skills Store for other people to use on their Alexa devices. The number of tasks Alexa can accomplish is clearly more than we can list in this article, but here are some of our favorites:
- Find recipes and provide audible step-by-step instructions with the AllRecipes skill.
- Narrate a Kindle book.
- Get movie or sports schedules.
- Order pizza and find nearby restaurants.
- Pay your bills with the Capital One app.
- Order almost anything online.
- Get tips on pregnancy.
- Track your Amazon packages.
- Get long-form news updates (soon to be in a newscaster voice).
- Have Alexa read your emails.
- Set location-based reminders (“Alexa, remind me to defrost the chicken when I get home”).
- Have Alexa make your home more secure with features like Alexa Guard and Away Mode.
In addition, Alexa is also useful in helping people establish routines for bedtime and the morning. You only need to assign one command, and that specific command can trigger a series of events. For example, if I were to say “Alexa, good night,” it could trigger the machine to turn off all the lights in the house, arm the security system, and turn on an ambient noise machine simultaneously.
You can also make your routine quite specific; If you want, you can program Alexa to turn on your favorite lights, wait 10 minutes, and then turn on the coffee maker. If you get up before your partner, you can use Alexa’s whisper mode, so she can communicate in a whisper and explicitly listen to your whispers. You can learn how to set up routines in our how-to post.
Alexa Guard is a useful security feature that carefully monitors your home perimeter and activity within your home when you’re not there. If your Echo speaker detects unusual sounds, like breaking glass or another mysterious noise, Alexa will quickly alert you with a notification to check things out. With Alexa Guard Plus (a paid version of the same feature), you’ll have the same home monitoring feature, access to Amazon’s emergency hotline, and several other security tools too.
Amazon is constantly working to improve and expand the features and capabilities of Alexa by creating valuable and intuitive technology. For example, the company is currently working to implement frustration detection features so that Alexa can understand your tone and figure out if you’re frustrated with her. If you want to learn more about these new Alexa features, just ask, “Alexa, what’s new with you?” and she is happy to share.
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