What’s all the fuss about the voice-activated home speaker that Amazon is due to release in the UK and Germany in late September?
This gadget has been available in the US for over a year and has proven a minor hit, with sales estimates between 1.6m and 3m.
But these figures belie the potential impact this kind of artificial intelligence device could have on our lives in the near future.
Echo doesn’t just let you switch on your music by voice command.
It’s the first of what will be several types of smart home appliances that work beyond simple tasks like playing music or turning on a light.
It uses an artificial intelligence assistant app called Alexa to allow users to access the information and services of the internet and control personal organisation tools.
You can order a pizza or a taxi, or check the weather or your diary, all just by speaking to Alexa. In this way, it is similar to Apple’s Siri but has advances in microphone and AI technology that make it significantly more accurate than past devices in understanding and executing commands – and from anywhere in your home that it can hear you.
I’ve been living with Amazon Echo for a year now, having imported it from the US via eBay. It’s an astonishing piece of kit that has to be experienced to see exactly why it has the potential to make the idea of a personal assistant smart home hub successful. It’s not surprising that Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos has said it is potentially the fourth core Amazon service after its marketplace, cloud services and mobile devices.
Many of us have already become used to poor voice-recognition software and error-prone requests on our mobile devices. But Amazon started developing a high-precision microphone and more sophisticated voice recognition system a full 12 months before its competitors and has gained a significant headstart. The big difference with other AI assistants is that instead of a single piece of software, Alexa uses 300 of its own apps (which Amazon calls “skills”) to provide the device’s different capabilities. This creates a system that is far more integrated and sophisticated yet simple to use with minimal setup.
This is a very significant development in the rise of the connected home, which is coming as we move from PCs and mobile devices to the era of the internet of things when computer chips will be in objects all around us.