IF YOU’RE NOT already having conversations with a cylindrical speaker sitting on the kitchen counter, you will be soon. AI-powered devices like Amazon Echo and Google Home are poised to invade tens of millions more households this year—even creeping into kids’ bedrooms. Here’s a guide to getting the most out of these futuristic household minions.
YOUR FIRST MISSION on the path to an AI-enabled household is to choose your smart connected speaker. It will be your central command module, the device you talk to when you need to get stuff done. Although more AI assistants are on the horizon, the big two are Amazon Echo and Google Home. Neither is perfect, and each has its own strengths and weaknesses. Your decision should hinge on how you’ll use it, so here’s some baseline info to get you thinking.
A NOTE ABOUT PRIVACY
If your paramount concern in life is privacy, turn back now. Google Home and Amazon Echo are constantly listening, and they send some of what you say back to the mothership. But you know what? This is just another scootch down the slippery slope you stepped on when you signed up for Facebook, bought your first book on Amazon, and typed “symptoms of shingles” into a search box. Tech companies have always asked us to give up a little privacy, a little data, in exchange for their wondrous services. Maybe homebots are the breaking point. But the things Alexa can do—so convenient! One bit of advice: Before the gang shows up to plan the casino heist, hit the device’s mute button. —David Pierce
AMAZON ECHO CAN play music and all, but Google Home rules as a party DJ, is a better match for movie night, and has superior sound. But Home’s real strength is as a control center for playing music and video around the house. You can use it to speak commands to any smart TV or speaker that has Chromecast built in. If your devices aren’t that intellectually advanced, just plug in a Chromecast dongle for audio ($35) or video ($35 for 1080p, $70 for 4K) where you need it. Here’s how to set up your system for optimal voice-guided entertainment.
1. Name your babies
Give each device a location-based moniker like “family room TV” or “bedroom speaker.” When you first tell Google Home to play a video or song, you have to designate which device you want. “OK, Google, play Mastodon on the kitchen speaker.” Any subsequent commands you bark at Home (“Now play the Titanic soundtrack”) will be sent to the last specified device.
2. Connect your streams
Home’s smartphone app lets you pair the device with various streaming accounts so you can voice-control them. Then you can queue up video from Netflix or YouTube plus any shows or movies you’ve scored from the Google Play Store. On the audio end, you can enjoy your Spotify, Pandora, iHeartRadio, or Google Play Music accounts on tap. Alas, you can’t order Game of Thrones via HBO Go (shame! shame!); ditto anything from Amazon Video (shocking!).
3. Go hands-free
Here’s where it gets really convenient. Not only can you ask your AI to play movies and shows (“OK, Google, play Easy on Netflix”), but you can also dock the remote and use just your voice for TV commands. Need to answer the door? “Pause the TV.” Seen this one before? “Next episode.” Kids making a racket? “Turn on captions.” Kids making so much of a racket that you have to go give ’em an earful? “Jump back 40 seconds.”
4. Say anything
These devices are adept at figuring out what you’re asking for, so cede control to the AI. Commands like “OK, Google, play some reggae music” will light up an appropriately doobie-us playlist. “OK, Google, play a few dance videos from YouTube” will get the party started (or abruptly shut it down, depending on the crowd). You don’t have to be specific—just let the cloud do the thinking.
DON’T HAVE A GOOGLE HOME? DON’T DESPAIR.
The Echo is really good at controlling streaming services. (Ask Alexa to play S-Town or to rock your Billy Joel playlist on Spotify—we know he’s your guilty pleasure, big shot.) But it stumbles a bit with entertainment devices. You have to pair it with third-party hardware, like Logitech’s $100 Harmony Hub, to commandeer your TV. Another alternative, while not strictly AI, is using an Xbox One or PlayStation 4 to voice-control the heck out of your television.
SO, YOU’RE HOSTING a dinner and a dispute arises about the pre–Twin Peaks work of Mädchen Amick. Your AI sidekick will settle it in a flash, right? With the internet at its fingertips, you would think so. We put Google Home and Alexa to the test, challenging them with real questions from a real trivia quiz. The answers speak for themselves.
1. Who is Batman’s butler?
HOME: Alfred Pennyworth [and then a New York Daily News story].
ALEXA: Sorry, I can’t find the answer to the question I heard.
2. Four presidents have won the Nobel Peace Prize. Name all four.
HOME: According to Christian Science Monitor, the other US presidents who have won the Nobel Peace Prize are, in chronological order, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Jimmy Carter.
ALEXA: [No response. I rephrase …]
Which four presidents have won the Nobel Peace Prize?
ALEXA: Hmm. I can’t find the answer to the question I heard.
3. Four state capitals are named for US presidents. Name all four and the state they’re in.
[Nothing, so I tried …]
4. Who was the first person to use “OMG”?
HOME: Here is a summary from the Huffington Post. In addition torepresenting the first known use of the phrase “OMG,” this 1917 letter from Lord Fisher to Winston Churchill has given us a new favorite catchphrase: “Shower it on the Admiralty!”
ALEXA: Hmm. I can’t find the answer to the question I heard.
5. What is a googol?
HOME: Google! Search for information about someone or something on the internet using the search engine Google.
ALEXA: A googolplex is written as a 1 followed by a googol zeros. A googol is itself 1 with 100 zeros after it, which is many times bigger than the number of atoms in the universe, so a googolplex is far too big to possibly write out in decimal form.
6. Which three animated films have been nominated for Best Picture?
HOME: According to Wikipedia, only three animated films have been nominated, and none have won.
ALEXA: Hmm. I can’t find the answer to the question I heard.
7. What film marked the debut of Minnie Mouse and Mickey Mouse?
HOME: Sorry, I don’t know how to help with that yet.
ALEXA: [Sad sound.]
Turn your smart home into a comedy club with these gut-grabbing pranks. —Tim Moynihan
OK, GOOGLE, HOW SHOULD I TALK TO YOU?
Speech-recognition tech has its limits. To avoid getting into a one-sided shouting match, speak to your robot valet the right way. —Chelsea Leu
That means no yelling, even after the millionth “I’m sorry, I didn’t quite get that.” Computer scientist Alexander Rudnicky of Carnegie Mellon says, “The voice assistant isn’t a child or someone hard of hearing.” It can’t understand or respond to the rising annoyance in your voice. Unless, says Nelson Morgan, a speech-processing researcher at UC Berkeley, “it was trained by a bunch of people who were very angry about being misunderstood.”
Think before you speak
In conversation, sometimes, um, people, you know, hem and haw and sort of, like, meander. But smart speakers are about as forgiving as your high school debate coach. Rudnicky’s advice: no trailing off, no stopping and starting.
Don’t be ambiguous
Humans are masters at using context to parse ambiguity. Machines? Not so much. “People often say things like ‘What about the other one?’ without specifying what the other one is,” says Vlad Sejnoha, CTO of voice systems outfit Nuance Communications. Say exactly what you want, without any room for misunderstanding—it will stave off your bot rage.
THOUGH WE HAVE yet to attain our ideal vision of the smart home—robots scurrying to fetch our slippers, breakfast, and a perfect pour-over—we now have the tools for establishing verbal dominion over our connected devices. The best option for exercising this power is Amazon Echo; the openness of its platform means Alexa can interact with an army of internet-of-things, er, things. You have to load up Alexa with the relevant skills and install some new gadgets. But after the initial effort, you can relax and enjoy your coffee as your digital minions carry out your commands.
1. Light the way
Since you’re already replacing those inefficient incandescents with LEDs, spend the extra dough and get smart LEDs. Most connect to Alexa via an inexpensive hub, but some can accept commands directly. Then you can use your voice to control the lights in different rooms. This is no novelty: You’ll appreciate it when you walk into the pitch-black hallway with your squirmy 8-month-old in one arm and a bottle of Grapefruit Sculpin in the other. (Trust us.)
2. Keep cool
Smart thermostats get weather data from the internet and can sense when you’re around, saving money by heating or cooling your home only when it’s needed. Voice control adds another layer of power. When it’s sleepy time, just say, “Alexa, set the bedroom to 66 degrees.” Don’t stop at a thermostat—ceiling fans from Haiku can be sped up or slowed with your voice, and Coway’s Airmega air purifier can obey Alexa.
3. Turn the key
Given that smart home devices don’t have the greatest track record on security, it’s probably a good thing that Alexa will only let you lock a smart lock with your voice. Sensor-laden locks are still cool, though; they can automatically unlock as you (carrying your phone) approach, then lock behind you when you leave. Using recipes you build on the web, you can tie a smart lock to other devices: Turn on the porch light and play soothing Kendrick Lamar when Mom gets home from work, for example.
4. Stay secure
When something goes bump in the night, let your alarm system play sentry. Scout’s array of motion sensors and access detectors all connect to a hub, and that hub talks to Alexa. You can arm and disarm the alarm, call for help, trigger the siren, and set preprogrammed modes, all via voice. When your Lyft to the airport arrives, shout, “Alexa, open Scout and set Vacation mode!”
5. Pull up
Ensmarten your garage-door opener with Garageio’s $200 web-connected box. If you’re in the car, access Alexa through your phone—tap on the mic inside Amazon’s shopping app to talk to your smart home. If you’re in the house and you see FedEx arrive with your new 65-inch OLED TV, just say, “Alexa, tell Garageio to open my door.”
AS VOICE ASSISTANTS invade our homes, they give beleaguered parents a screen-free way to entertain their offspring. But of all the obligations technology helps us delegate, should we really add bringing up baby to the list?
Mattel thinks so. Earlier this year the company announced the Nabi Aristotle, an Echo-like speaker/baby monitor mashup designed for children and their parents. It will eventually offer plenty of pluses, like foreign language lessons and forced politeness—when Manners Mode is on, you have to say “please” to complete any prompt. But Aristotle will also read your tyke a bedtime story and soothe your wailing infant.
It seems like children-being-raised-by-AI should happen at the end of the dystopian arc, not the bare beginning. But it makes a certain kind of sense: When in life are you more welcoming of an extra hand (or robotic voice) than during those late-night wake-up bawls?
A potentially less-guilt-inducing approach comes from the CogniToys Dino, a diminutive plastic T. rex that taps into IBM’s big brain, Watson. Just think: The same machine mind that dominates Jeopardy! and gins up suspect burrito recipes can guide your tween through basic arithmetic. It also tells jokes.
The inherent weirdness of offloading kid duties to an AI nanny gets compounded by more concrete concerns. Devices like Echo and Google Home record all voices, regardless of age, and shuttle those recordings to far-flung servers. You can at least control whether to put a photo or video on Instagram; the security of Alexa’s data, not so much.
That’s not to say you should keep AI out of your kids’ life. It’s the future; your tykes should be a part of it. Just keep in mind that AI is only adding more unknowns to a gig that’s already nothing but.