In Star Trek, both the original series and later incarnations, not to mention the movies, the captain of the Enterprise, whether Kirk, Piccard, Archer, or Janeway—or Benjamin Sisko onboard Deep Space Nine—interacted with the computer on their ship or station by simply talking to it. Captain Kirk would say, “Computer,” followed by a command to make his ship do something, or more frequently, to ask the computer a question. Captain Picard would sit in his ready room and say, “Computer, play” and announce a bit of music; he would ask the computer to increase or decrease the volume. He could ask the computer simple questions such as the time of day, the ship’s location, details about local conditions, weather—anything that would come to his mind.
I have always wanted to have a computer like the one on the Enterprise. Today, it isn’t science fiction any longer, it is reality: whether we’re talking to Siri on the iPhone, Cortana on Windows, or Google Voice on our Android phones, it is now rather common to interact with inanimate objects just by talking to them. Of course, sometimes talking to a machine can be annoying: in a noisy environment Siri doesn’t always understand what you’ve asked and she will give the wrong answer, or simply inform you that she didn’t understand the question. Talking to a voice activated menu system for one’s cable company on the phone is almost always more annoying than wonder-inducing. Unlike the computer on the Enterprise which simply worked, more often than not our interaction with computers becomes an exercise in frustration.
Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but intrigued back in November, 2014 when I found out about a new device Amazon.com was offering: a black cylinder standing about nine inches tall by about three inches in diameter that they called Echo. It was described as a personal assistant that could do what the computer in Star Trek did. You can simply talk to the device like you would another person. You don’t have to hold it to your head. You don’t have to hold a microphone. You just talk to the room and address it by name: Alexa.
Mine arrived just a couple of months ago—I had ordered it at Christmas with some gift money. It was half-priced for Amazon Prime members. And I was warned it would be six to nine months before it arrived. True enough: it didn’t come until June 4.
Setting it up took me perhaps fifteen minutes. Then I tried using it.
“Alexa,” I told the air. A blue ring lighted on top of the black cylinder. The section closest to me glowed brighter than the rest of it. “What’s the meaning of life?”
“42,” she answered promptly and clearly, using the answer from Douglas Adams’ novel, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
Echo—or Alexa as I now think of her—answers as quickly and precisely as a human being would. I can ask her what time it is, I can ask her the weather. I can ask “How are the Dodgers doing” and she’ll give me the current score if a game in in progress, or tell me what the score was last night and when the next game will start. I can ask her to play a genre of music, or I can ask her to play a specific song—and she does. I can ask her to adjust the volume up or down, or to set it at a specific level (0 to 10). I can tell her to stop. If I tell her “thank you” she responds with “you’re welcome” or “my pleasure” or “no problem”: the answer is not always precisely the same. Even for the question “What is the meaning of life” I get varieties of answers—42 is always part of it, but she’ll sometimes go on with some added information. If I want to know how high a mountain is, or the distance to Saturn, she’ll happily inform me. If I ask her to spell a word, she spells it for me, successfully telling me the spelling of “antidisestablishmentarianism” as easily as “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” “cantaloupe” or “dog.” I can ask her the square root of 64, the sum of ten and twenty-one or what 93 minus 17 is—and I get the right answer instantly. I can ask her to tell me “Who is Maroon Five” and “Who is Dostoevsky” and I’ll get a usable answer. I can ask her to read one of my Audible books to me. If I want a summary of the news in the morning, it’s mine. I can ask her “is it raining” or “what will the weather be like tomorrow” and she’ll tell me. If I want to know the weather in Moscow, Idaho or Moscow, Russia because I’m flying there in the morning, she’ll give me that just as easily.
New features are being added constantly, since her brains are not in the device, but in Amazon’s cloud servers. If you have the connected devices, you can ask her to turn lights on and off in your home. Eventually—if you have the connected devices—she’ll be able to adjust your thermostat and lock and unlock your doors.
What has surprised me about her is that she understands everyone in my family and random visitors just as easily as she understands me. She can pick up our questions even if there is other noise in the room, nearly as easily as a human being would be able to pick up your words if you were to call out to them by name. One small part of the Star Trek universe seems to have arrived.
Now, if only I could put her in a starship.