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What's So Revolutionary About Amazon's 'Echo'?


ALEC BALDWIN: Alexa, how many championships has Dan Marino won?

ALEXA: Dan Marino has won zero championships.

DAN MARINO: Alexa, how many Oscars has Alec Baldwin won?

ALEXA: Alec Baldwin has won zero...

BALDWIN: Alexa, stop. Well played, Marino.


Oh, that's funny. Maybe you saw this ad during the Super Bowl and wondered, who is Alexa? And what is this black cylinder Alec Baldwin and Dan Marino keep talking to? Alexa is a voice-activated assistant, like Apple's Siri, that operates on a speaker sold by Amazon called the Echo. Unlike Siri, Alexa and the echo are designed specifically for use in the home. Alexa can dim the lights, convert cooking measurements, even act as your alarm clock. It's been on the market since 2014 but slowly gaining converts. But who needs another gadget, really? We're skeptical. So we asked The Boston Globe's Hiawatha Bray to explain the appeal. Hiawatha, thanks for being with us.

HIAWATHA BRAY: Glad to be here.

MARTIN: You own an echo, I understand.

BRAY: Yeah. Well, I sort of borrowed one from Amazon. But I haven't been quite willing to give it back yet because it's such an impressive device.

MARTIN: How come?

BRAY: It really is a - how come? Because what it is is one of the early examples of this much-hyped concept that begins to show you some of the stuff - just a tiny hint - of why this could turn out to be such a transformative technology in the way we live our lives. I mean, when you're sitting there in your room and you want to know the news, you can just say, Alexa, give me a news bulletin. And it starts playing headlines from NPR or the BBC. If you want to know the weather, it tells you the weather. If you have music on your Amazon Prime account, you can say, play my favorite music by - I don't know - Broms (ph). But the point is to take just about everything electronic in your house and have it set up so that it can be controlled with verbal commands from Alexa.

MARTIN: By Amazon - we're talking about Amazon taking over the controls of my home?

BRAY: Well, not Amazon. They're just giving you the tool that allows you to do it.


BRAY: It connects to your Wi-Fi. Already there are Wi-Fi-enabled light bulbs. There are Wi-Fi-enabled home security systems. There are Wi-Fi-enabled thermostats. So you can easily imagine a future in which you walk into your home and say, Alexa, turn on CNN. Set the temperature to 70 degrees. And heat the oven to 400.


BRAY: Ford Motor Company later this year is coming up with an Alexa-compatible car. You want to start your car up on a frosty morning so it's already warm when you get there? Say, Alexa, start the car. Out back, your car starts up.


BRAY: That's coming from Ford this year. Absolutely, that's just one example. Everything's going to be connected.

MARTIN: You are blowing my mind (laughter).

BRAY: I mean, that's the world we're facing. And there are challenges. Don't get me wrong. There are serious challenges. And there's plenty of evidence that right now, people haven't really figured out how we're going to secure all this stuff.


BRAY: Because it - the data security and privacy challenges are gigantic. And you're right to be concerned about that. But on the other hand, this is going to be so cool.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

BRAY: I mean, this is going to be wonderful.

MARTIN: Privacy schmivacy (ph). (Laughter).

BRAY: Yeah, I mean, imagine - I don't know. I don't think we're there yet. You know, one of the problems is that Amazon isn't - their system isn't as intelligent as Google, for example. Of all the speech recognition stuff out there, Google's - Google now is my favorite because Google knows so much. It usually gives better answers than any of the others. But the other guys are going to catch up. And so you're going to eventually have incredibly smart stuff where you're going to just be able to ask - you know, you saw the commercial where he said, how many Super Bowls did Dan Marino win? Eventually, you're going to be able to ask even more complex questions. And these things are going to be able to just give you the answer. It's going to be fantastic.

MARTIN: Hiawatha Bray is a technology reporter at The Boston Globe. Hiawatha, thanks so much.

BRAY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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