There’s no doubt that Amazon’s Alexa digital assistant has been hugely successful – and Black Friday will likely have a load more offers to tempt users. Despite Windows 10 closing in on being the most-used OS around, other commentators predict that in future more people will interact with a digital assistant than use a traditional computer. Cortana is perhaps less-fancied, though partnering with Alexa has been underway for a while, and was previously covered in ToW #444.
Amazon meanwhile has brought the Alexa app to the PC, not just on select new machines but for everyone running the latest release of Windows 10. See here to install.
This gives you the option of talking to your PC to control the plethora of 3rd party devices that support the Alexa ecosystem, as well as all the other stupid stuff you might ask of Alexa already. Find out more, here.
Tip o’ the Week 444 – Computer! Computer!? Hello Computer?!?
Remember the time when talking to a computer seemed like science fiction?
If you’re an Amazon Echo or Sonos One* user, you’ll already be familiar with barking orders at an inanimate object. If you’re tired of shouting ALEXA… ALEXA!!!, then you can even change the “Wake Word” on the Amazon devices – but not yet others – so you can say other things instead. Handy if your daughter or your dog is called Alexa.
In the Alexa app on your phone, go to Settings, look under the list of devices and if you select an Echo device of some sort, then you’ll find a Wake Word option fairly far down the list. This lets you choose something else, though not yet at the level when you could make up your own wake word…
Anyway, who can pass up the opportunity to pretend to be Mr Scott?
Anyway, recent announcements saw the preview of Cortana joining hands with Alexa and allowing access both from Windows 10 PCs to (some) Alexa functionality, and US-based Amazon users can access Cortana stuff through Alexa-enabled devices.
On your PC, you may need to check your Cortana settings (just press WindowsKey and start typing Cortana to see the settings) to either enable the Hey Cortana key phrase, or press WindowsKey+C as a shortcut, then speak.
Voice-searching on the PC using Cortana can be a pretty handy thing to do, as there are plenty of phrases that will give you a direct response rather than take you to a website. It’s quicker to press the WindowsKey+C option than to say “Hey Cortana”, and you could ask stuff like M-S-F-T, what’s the time in New York, what’s the news, what’s the weather, convert pound to dollar and so on.
To start using Alexa on your PC, just go to Cortana and say “Open Alexa” – at which point, on the first run, you’ll be prompted to sign in using your Amazon account.
You’ll also need to grant permission to share info between the two services, and now be able to do things like add items to your Amazon shopping list from within the Cortana UI, or in the reverse, query your Office 365 calendar from your Echo smart speaker.
YMMV at the moment, but it’ll surely get more integrated in time. Right now, you can’t stream music through Alexa to the PC (or, it seems, control smart home devices that work through Alexa, though that could be a regional thing for the moment) – and if you’ve a UK-based Amazon account, you can’t add the Cortana Skill to your Alexa account, so there’s no option of querying Cortana from the Echo, yet. US users can, though.
Still, Normal People don’t have electronics listening to everything they say… so what if a few nerds need to put up with some temporary friction from having two competing assistants try to work together? Click-Over-bzzzt.
Tip o’ the Week 430 – developers, developers, developers
This week has seen the Microsoft developer conference, called //build/ in its current guise, take place in “Cloud City”, Seattle (not so-called because it rains all the time – in fact, it rains less than in Miami. Yeah, right). Every major tech company has a developer conference, usually a sold-out nerdfest where the (mostly) faithful gather to hear what’s coming down the line, so they know what to go and build themselves.
Apple has its WWDC in California every year (for a long time, in San Francisco), and at its peak was a quasi-religious experience for the faithful. Other similar keynotes sometimes caused deep soul searching and gnashing of teeth.
The Microsoft one used to be the PDC, until the upcoming launch of Windows 8 meant it was time to try to win the hearts & minds of app developers, so //build/ became rooted in California in the hope that the groovy kids would build their apps on Windows and Windows Phone. Now that ship has largely sailed, it’s gone back up to the Pacific North West, with the focus more on other areas.
Moving on from the device-and-app-centric view that prevailed a few years back (whilst announcing a new way of bridging the user experience between multiple platforms of devices), Build has embraced the cloud & intelligent edge vision which cleverly repositions a lot of enabling technologies behind services like Cortana (speech recognition, cognitive/natural language understanding etc) and vision-based products such as Kinect, HoloLens and the mixed reality investments in Windows. AI took centre stage; for a summary of the main event, see here.
The cloud platform in Azure can take data from devices on the edge and process it on their behalf, or using smarter devices, do some of the processing locally, perhaps using machine learning models that have been trained in the cloud but executed at the edge.
With Azure Sphere, there’s a way for developers to build secure and highly functional ways to process data on-board and communicate with devices, so they can concentrate more on what their apps do, and on the data, less on managing the “things” which generate it.
For all of the breakouts at Build and the keynotes on-demand, see here.
Back in the non-cloud city, Google has adopted a similar developer ra-ra method, with its Google I/O conference also taking place in and around San Francisco, also (like WWDC and Build) formerly at Moscone. It happened this past week, too.
Like everyone else, some major announcements and some knock-em dead demos are reserved for the attendees to get buzzed on, generating plenty of external coverage and crafting an image around how innovative and forward thinking the company is.
Google Duplex, shown this week to gasps from the crowd, looks like a great way of avoiding dealing with ordinary people any more, a point picked up by one writer who called it “selfish”.
Does a reliance on barking orders at robot assistants and the increasing sophistication of AI in bots and so on, mean the beginning of the end for politeness and to the service industry? A topic for further consideration, surely.