Voice control has existed for decades. Most recently, we’ve seen voice interfaces in the form of Siri, Cortana, and Google Now. But I believe Alexa—the flagship voice interface for Amazon and its Echo line of products (and Fire TV too)—is primed to change voice interfaces forever, and get market penetration that the competitors can only dream of.
There are a few key reasons for that:
- The Echo and Echo Dot, the primary two devices in the family, are always listening. That may raise privacy concerns, but rest assured: they only activate when they sense certain predefined “keywords”. Otherwise, they’re silent and don’t record. This is huge, because it means you don’t need to fumble for your phone or turn on your laptop to speak with Alexa. You just speak.
- The Alexa “AI” is open and improving all the time. Developers are encouraged to publish new “skills” that bring new features and capabilities to Alexa.
- It just feels natural. Unlike other voice interfaces, Alexa has truly stunning voice-to-text recognition, and the natural language parsing is really impressive. It’s not perfect, but it’s the first voice interface I’ve used that has understood everything I’ve thrown at it. (It even picked up the name “Sigur Rós” last night, when I wanted a bit of ambient music before bed.)
All three of these elements combine with a few other market forces that I believe will propel Alexa and similar apps to the forefront.
Look at the history of computing interfaces. As time progresses, the trendlines point toward more “natural” methods of interaction by separating the barrier between humans and computers. Punch cards were eliminated to connect us directly to the computer via the keyboard. Spatial navigation with keyboards is cumbersome, so we created the mouse to simplify the interaction. Both mechanical keyboards and the mouse were pushed aside for touchscreens. Look to the future, and tools like Oculus and HoloLens represent an even further shift toward immersing us in digital experiences.
That’s why Alexa is exciting: it’s the most tangible, accessible representation of this shift. Not only because it’s available now and relatively affordable, but because it uses an interface many of us are already used to: speech.
Of course there are caveats. I’m writing this as someone fortunate to have a voice, and a relatively unaccented one at that. For those with thick accents, or those unable to speak, Alexa is obviously not an ideal interface. But, even in those cases, it represents the shift toward a more natural, more efficient conversational interaction paradigm. The Echo may not be the actual input method you use, but major companies are embracing the natural conversation as the next evolution of computing.
Slack has bots. Microsoft has a chat bot API. Customer service via live chat is becoming a standard expectation.
Whatever interface you use, natural conversation is the way of the future. There are certainly still challenges to solve, but Alexa (and its cousins) represents the next step in our steady path toward simpler, more efficient, more intuitive, and more elegant computing.