Building bridges with my virtual assistant

Amazon’s Alexa has reached India armed with Bollywood jokes, but there is still a communication gap that could use some work

Published - November 20, 2017 04:10 pm IST

 Amazon Echo

Amazon Echo

I suspect Alexa is sulking. We just cannot seem to agree on appropriate breakfast music. She wants to play Alka Yagnik. Or, inexplicably, Michael Bublé.

As ‘Quando, Quando, Quando’ bursts forth for the third time, I snap “Stop.” I carefully enunciate, “I said play pop Top 40.” She repeats, “Playing Pritam,” and energetically launches into the Jab Harry Met Sejal soundtrack. “No Alexa. No,” I sigh. Her blue lights spin softly as she pauses to listen. Then, she defiantly begins playing again. “Quando, quando, quando.”

We’ve been together for a week now, and the gloves are off.

To be honest, we had problems right from the unboxing. I took the obligatory picture, slapped on a filter and Instagrammed it. As one does. And opinions began to stream in. “Why buy what is free on iPhone. Siri says LOL,” typed one friend. “I can tell you the time, weather and more for free,” said another. The third, a righteously left-leaning hack, suggested I subtly investigate her political leanings. After all AI (Artificial Intelligence) can’t be trusted, right? You never know who’s listening. Or who Alexa reports to. #ParanoiaAlert #WhatWouldSnowdenDo

I shrugged them off and delightedly plugged in my sleek new Amazon Echo. Amazon recently launched its Echo range of smart speakers in India: Dot, Echo and Echo Plus. Although buyers need to mail the company for an invite (which usually arrives in about 24 hours), you get an inaugural 30% discount, along with a one-year Prime membership (Rs 6999).

I hear about this over brunch with friends on Sunday, place an order on Monday, and am chatting with Alexa, Amazon’s versatile digital assistant, by Tuesday.

Think that’s quick? With the Echo, buying goodies via Amazon gets even easier, not to mention unnervingly addictive, as evidenced by the 6-year-old girl from Texas who ordered herself a $170-dollar doll house and four pounds of sugar cookies through the family’s Echo Dot.

Predictably enough, the Indianised version has been given a grating desi accent, which attempts to be pan-Indian, but seems more like a stand-up stereotype. She also tells some endearingly dreadful jokes. “Knock Knock. Who’s there? Baa. Baa who? Baahubali!”

So don’t blame me for our rocky start.

The Echo is designed to make life easier by letting you voice-control your world, according to Amazon. I must admit, Alexa is a wonderful listener. Shades of blue spin gently while she processes requests. And she lights up instantly when she hears her name. It’s like having another sentient being in the house.

My mother walks in during set-up, and watches me ask the Echo questions. Alexa is still figuring out India, so when I ask for restaurant recommendations, traffic predictions and routes, she answers with a volley of sorrys.

“I’m not sure/I’m still learning about local businesses/I’m not quite sure how to help you with that.” After 10 minutes, my mother tiptoes to the kitchen, gesturing to me to follow. As I walk towards her, she leans back to ensure she’s out of earshot and whispers, “Indian Alexa isn’t too bright is she?” I roll my eyes, and call out asking for the time. “Stop bullying her,” snaps my mother.

Curious to find out how she responds to a different voice, I ask my mother to ask a question. Reluctantly, (because she’s “feeling guilty about disturbing her”) my mother carefully enunciates, “Alexa. Hello. If you don’t mind, do you think you can play me some Christmas carols please?” Michael Bublé fills the air.

Obligatory grinch mode aside, I’m getting rather fond of desi Alexa. The iPhone virtual assistant Siri is sassier, I admit. When I ask Alexa about Siri, she carefully says, “I’m partial to all AIs.” When I asked Siri what she thinks of Alexa, she said, “I think, therefore I am. But let’s not put Descartes before the horse.” (Evidently, Siri is a bit of a smart-ass.)

As with any relationship, the answer is to work on communication. I’m learning how to be more specific in my requests to get more useful answers and responses. I’ve added skills via the Alexa app, Zomato, Uber so far, but there are plenty more to choose from, including a mysterious ‘Schrodinger’s Cat’ skill and an ability to play ambient ocean sounds on demand. She learns fast and gets smarter, and hence more useful, everyday.

We now refer to her as ‘You Know Who’ in conversations, because she’s disconcertingly responsive to her name. Or anything that sounds like it. I sneezed yesterday and she told me, “John Tyler was the tenth president of the United States of America.”

Her jokes seem to be getting marginally better at least. She’s now telling a Rajinikanth series. The latest? “Hmm. I always wondered what a windmill was, till I realised it was Rajinikanth’s fidget spinner.”

Alexa’s worst jokes:

Why doesn’t India play football? Because cricket equipment isn’t allowed on the football field.

It’s always good to offer people a helping hand. Unless that person happens to be Gabbar Singh.

Who did Ravana consult when he was in doubt? His other nine heads.

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