Tough impressions of the Amazon Echo from regular people

Posted by Matt Birchler
— 2 min read

I really like my Amazon Echo, and I think that voice assistants are a big part of the next wave of computing, but that does not seem to be as universal a feeling as one might gather just by reading tech blogs. I like my Echo because it can answer some simple questions and give me some basic information whenever I want it. As the Echo (and Google Home like it) is still pretty new, niche tech at the moment, I’m always interested to hear what non tech-nerds think about this.

Last week it was announced that Amazon was buying Whole Foods, and I was wondering to myself how many retail locations Whole Foods, and now Amazon, has. I asked Alexa, and before it could even get an answer out, my wife commented:

Why do you even bother? It doesn’t know anything.

Now we have own an Echo since November 2016, so we have some experience with this device, but the fact that her default expectation when asking Alexa a question is that she will not know the answer is not a great look for the Echo. Again, this is something we’ve had for months, and we both use everyday.

When I pushed my wife for clarification she said that Alexa is good for really basic things like “turn on the lights” and “set a 45 minute timer”, but she’s not “smart” by any means. She’d rather ask Siri the question or type the question into Google because both will at least have a chance of getting the right answer.

Next up was my dad. He’s a techy guy, and tends to be an early adopter of new tech and has talked to me about getting some smart lights and switches for the house so he can better set up timers for when he and my mom are out of town. His birthday is coming up and I was considering the idea of getting him an Echo or Home as a gift. We visited him for Father’s Day this weekend and I innocently asked him what he thought about the Echo.

He told me there was no way in hell he was going to put one of those in his house. “A speaker that’s recoding me all the time??? I don’t think so!”

I asked if Amazon’s promise that they were only recording you when you say the trigger word and he said that doesn’t really fill him with confidence. He doesn’t trust Amazon, and he doesn’t trust Google to keep his privacy. He brought up the case when law enforcement was trying to get audio logs from someone’s Echo, and the recent instance of tons of NSA hacking tools leaking online. Even if Amazon isn’t using the Echo to spy on me, how can I know that someone can’t use one of these hacking tools to start recording everyone’s Echo.”

I couldn’t argue with him too much, as the Echo probably is one of the least secure computers in my house, but I was still surprised by his response to even the idea of an Echo in his house.

Out of curiosity I asked him if he was more interested in Apple’s upcoming HomePod that also has a microphone in it. He said he was, in large part because it was made by Apple, and Apple at least cares a little about his privacy.

I don’t know how illustrative of the wider impression of these voice assistant cylinders in the world, but it was interesting to hear 2 people who are very much into tech say the Echo:

  1. Is too stupid to be trusted to do much more than set timers and give the weather
  2. Is an insecure device that could be used to spy on anyone with the flip of a switch.