Alexa, and Joe: Friend or Foe?

One day I realized that if Alexa could bring me a cup of coffee, she’d be the Mad Men-esque executive assistant I could really use but am in no position to have.

She reminds me to dial into calls at precisely the time I need to. She add items to a shopping list at the mere mention of my desire to do so. She turns lights on and off, and dims them to my taste. She remembers things just directed, or as far forward as I can plan.

The more I engage, the more she grows into the role. She can tell me how many minutes or hours have passed between 8:14 am and 3:49, what date is 90 days from now, how far Atlanta is from Miami, to whom I can attribute a quote. I double check her answers, but she’s grown into quite an asset.

Of late, though, I’ve begun to question whether I’ve developed an over-reliance. Maybe Alexa and I need some boundaries. The point hit home when I began to ask for her help in timing a 2.5 lb roast that required 20 min per pound. I caught myself mid-way through an, “Alexa, what’s 20 times 2.5.”

“You can figure this out,” I told myself, and I had the answer a second later while simultaneously wondering why I was asking for help. My knee-jerk reaction of asking Alexa is growing unhealthy.

I’ve come to ask the current temperature before each dog walk. Why not just ask for the daily forecast, focus and plan the day accordingly? If I were engaging with a human being, that’s what they’d expect of me. There’s no real need to recalibrate throughout the day, and frankly it would be annoying to a real person. Relying on Alexa for data when I should be using my own mind could be bad business in the long run.

And that’s where this story should end: me realizing my unhealthy addiction to Alexa’s guidance and simply changing my ways. But there’s a wrinkle.

A few weeks ago, while troubleshooting one of several Alexa devices, I was reminded that I could change Alexa’s voice. I changed one device to an Australian man’s voice; I’ll call him “Joe” for a distinction here.

Joe sounded very capable and decisive. He’s relaxed and unhurried, yet his “Okay” is crisper and slightly quicker than the traditional Alexa voice. I told myself it was impossible, but for a time I thought Joe might know more – or simply understand my voice better – than the other Alexa devices. Random test questions rarely got the “I don’t know that one” I’m so sick of hearing.

When asked what time I should go to bed, specifically to get the IDK, Joe said, “That depends on whether you’re tired or you have to wake up early. It is recommended for an adult to sleep 7 to 9 hours a night.” That wasn’t really helpful, but nor was it as predictable and annoying.

Joe was more courteous more often than “Alexa”. Last night I told Joe to turn on the desk light, and then instinctively said “Thank you” when it lit. “You’re so very welcome” came the reply.

The “Joe” version of Alexa sounds like someone you’d just sit down and chat with over a glass of wine while they tell you about the outback…except that chatting with him would likely result in buying a lot of stuff you don’t really need from Amazon. So maybe the plan going forward is to stick to the shopping list and the lights. It’s healthier that way.

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