Luke Melia


June 29, 2015

Mini-Review of Amazon Echo

I got an Amazon Echo on Tuesday. The always-available voice interaction model is pretty awesome and feels ripe with possibility.

Out of the box, I find our new friend Alexa most useful for giving me the weather forecast as I’m getting dressed. As the person in my household who is asked what the weather is going to be like each morning (why me?), it gives me much joy to be able to delegate this task to Alexa.

I would love if the Echo could tell who is speaking (i.e. different members of my family). That would open up some some fun interactions. Also, as others have reported, the Echo has trouble understanding my 7 year old daughter, though it is remarkably good with the rest of us.

The privacy issues are worrisome to me. Along with our computers, tablets and phones, there’s now one more hackable internet connected microphone in my apartment. It seems inevitable that a determined hacker will compromise a target’s Echo to transmit everything. But for now… ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

I spent some time with the dev kit today and wrote my first “skill” for Alexa. I call it “The Fish” and it aims to address another annoyance in my household. We have a fish (who everyone is kind of ambivalent about because she killed the other fish that arrived with her). The kids are generally supposed to feed her but sometimes forget, leading my wife or I to query in a loud voice, “Did anyone feed the fish today?”. Enter my new skill. When you feed the fish, you say “Alexa, tell the fish that I fed her.” Alexa pings my web service (implemented on AWS Lambda in node) which pushes the time stamp into a redis “fish-feedings” list, and instructs Alexa to reply “OK, got it. Thanks for feeding the fish”. Later, instead of the loud query, we can say, “Alexa, ask the fish if she has been fed” and it will reply “The fish was last fed 3 hours ago” thanks to the same web service reading the most recent timestamp and generating a humanized version of it (e.g. “3 hours ago”). We’ll see how well it works, but I’m rather tickled to hear it in action.

For anyone else who wants to build skills using AWS Lambda, a couple of tips: 1) forget to add Alexa Skill Kit as an Event Source to your Lambda functions. 2) if you want to use redis like I did, don’t try to use the AWS Elasticache redis because it can only be seen by EC2 instances; I used redistogo instead.

I’m looking forward to hearing how others extend it!

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