Amazon surprised everyone Thursday by unceremoniously launching a product called Echo.
The Internet-connected hardware device provides support for Amazon's virtual assistant platform. That platform, called Alexa, works like Apple's Siri, Google Now or Microsoft's Cortana. You talk to Alexa using Echo's microphone. Alexa talks back through Echo's speakers. Alexa does things for you. It answers your questions.
There is no conceptual difference between Alexa and Siri, Google Now or Cortana.
Critics have pounced on Echo, saying that it's just a manipulative way for Amazon to make it easy for you to buy stuff. That criticism is as true as it is obvious, but it's also irrelevant. Both Amazon and consumers want buying stuff to be easier.
Other critics said that Echo is unnecessary because we already carry smartphones that can do the same thing. But here's where I completely part company with the critics. I believe Echo represents the future of human-machine interfaces better than Siri, Google Now or Cortana do.
Why Echo is the future
Echo is closer to how we'll use computers in the future because it's optimized for hands-free, ambient use.
It's optimized in the sense that Echo has a purpose-built microphone designed to understand human speech anywhere in a room and a speaker system that enables human ears to hear the response -- as well as music and other audio -- from anywhere in a room. (In fact, the device is almost entirely made up of speaker components.) A ring around the top lets you adjust the volume of the speaker. And a light lets you know when it's working.
Unlike smartphones, Echo is not designed to just make it possible for a specific person to instantly access a virtual assistant; it's designed for use by anyone in a room.
Star Trek nailed it. In that series (in addition to an absurd array of dials, buttons and screens), the main interface to the Enterprise's supercomputer was voice. A crew member would say: "Computer" followed by some command or question. The computer would talk back.
It's inevitable that this interface will be extremely effective, appealing and ubiquitous in the future. We'll talk, and the virtual assistant of our choice will answer, act and respond accordingly.
As artificial intelligence, voice recognition, speech recognition and other technologies related to virtual assistants improve, these interfaces will do amazing things for us. They'll understand, interpret and make decisions based on past behavior. We'll blurt out "Alexa" or "Hey Siri" or "OK, Google Now" or "Yo, Cortana" followed by something cryptic and colloquial: "We need paper towels!" The assistant will know your preferences and will have access to your credit card, so it will go ahead and order the paper towels and have them shipped. It's not hard to see why this is important to Amazon.
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