The Dog and the Amazon Dot

The Dog and the Amazon Dot

Alexa arrived in our family this week.  Finally.  After nine months of waiting.


Now that you’ve picked yourself from the floor, I’ll explain. We’re not pushing back the boundaries of biology and haven’t encountered a clutch of faintly glowing eggs in the swimming pool.  And it goes without saying that we haven’t acquired another domesticated animal either.  Lord knows, it’s bad enough with the one we currently have.  Before you start fretting about hurting her feelings. don’t.  Although the dog can read she is still at the physical book stage, the Internet of trees one.  So anything I post on here is, for the moment, inaccessible and incomprehensible.

Steady now.

The New Arrival

Our new arrival is electronic. She – for it is a she – is called Alexa. She is a small, round black object about the size of an ice hockey puck. She emanates seriousness and purpose and sits on a chair in the living room.  She is patient and quiet, waiting for one of us to make the first move.  She is a magical object.  Speak to her and a bluish-green ring illuminates as she processes the request, delays just long enough to build the tension and intones her answer.

Alexa, what is the time?


The time is 11:52 a.m.


For the first day we all just stood around gazing in wonder, like a man from Alloa looking at a twenty pound note.  But we soon found it within ourselves to cast aside both our Scottishness and our collective aphasia, subsequently bombarding her with questions and oohing and aahing at her responses like some Victorian audience in the presence of the Great Wizard of the North.

Amazon Alexa

Alexa is simply a speaker and some omni-directional far-field microphones.  The magic lies in the interface to Amazon’s cloud-based voice recognition software, or rather in its uncanny consistency and accuracy over a range of accents, complex sentences and background noise conditions.  We’ve been using the device for a week now – it only came out on October 27 – and have bombarded it with questions ranging from the simple ‘What is the time?’ or ‘How’s the weather today?’ to the more pungent ‘What is the meaning of life?’ or “Can you pass the Turing Test?” and so far there have been few failures.

What separates Alexa, or the Amazon Dot to give her her Sunday name, from Siri, Cortana and Google Now is that Alexa is designed only to listen and talk. These skills haven’t been added on as some afterthought to a phone or a tablet or a laptop. There is no communication medium other than voice for Alexa. No keyboard. No tappy screen. And that makes a difference. If you don’t speak you get no response. And that’s kind of cool.  It also opens up a whole range of possibilities for those who find traditional technology interfaces difficult to use.

Technology works best in my book when it stimulates social change and I can easily envisage a time where the local GP-bot might prescribe Alexa as medicine for the lonely.  It’s cheaper and more humane than stuffing the old dear full of Tramadol every night and more coherent than even the most educated budgie.

So What Does the Dog Think?

I could barely contain my excitement so obviously felt a burning need to share it with the hound.

Me: Hound, watch and wonder

The mutt raised her head, shook it and went back to sleep.

Me: Alexa. How’s the weather today?
Alexa: In Aberfoyle the temperature is six degrees with light westerly winds. You can expect some intermittent showers as the evening progresses.

I was beaming. Well, as close as I get to beaming which is pretty much just standing there looking the same way I always do.

Me:  Well?
Mutt:  Well, what?
Me:  Well, what do you think? Isn’t it great?
Mutt (sighing):  At the risk of sounding exactly like you, I don’t think Mr Irony has called round here recently.
Me:  What do you mean?

An eyebrow headed north. There was a silence, presumably for my educational benefit. It lasted quite a long time.

Mutt:  Anthropomorphism. Lending a human quality or emotion to a non-human subject to endear that subject to the audience and increasing the sense of relativity between the two. Ring any bells, Quasimodo?
Me:  But, you don’t understand.  This is a significant technological breakthrough. It’s voice recognition and natural language processing and Star Trek become real. It’s science. Proper science, not Brian Rix stuff.  This is one of the things that differentiates humans from the lower species. Gives him dominion, so to speak.
Mutt:  I beg your pardon?
Me:  What?
Mutt:  Did you just say ‘the lower species’?
Me:  Well, humans are, erm, more advanced.  Than other animals.  Obviously.  Other animals are subservient to human will.

There was a snorting sound, the one she makes when she needs to go for a wee. I steeled myself to the task of grabbing the flexi-lead and some poo bags and trying to get my aging fingers to prise the damned things open but she’d started up again before I even got past the swearing part. The snort must have had some other significance.

Mutt:  Ahh. I see. Very nice. An’ how’d you get that, eh? By exploitin’ the workers — by ‘angin’ on to outdated imperialist dogma which perpetuates the economic an’ social differences in our society! If there’s ever going to be any progress…

I just looked at her.

Me:  That is sooooo lame
Mutt:  What?
Me:  You’re quoting Monty Python at me. You don’t even like Monty Python. It’s a ‘guy thing’.  Remember?
Mutt:  I just happened to be watching it this morning.  While you were out getting me chicken and sweet potato sticks, a task which, even with my lack of appreciation of the human concept of time, did seem to last inordinately long.
Me:  What do you mean, you just happened to be watching it this morning?  It’s on the server so you’d need to access it from a phone or a laptop or an ipad using plex or something.  You don’t know how to do that.  And I’m assuming you didn’t just find the DVD and put it on.  That would have meant pulling down the Ramsay ladder and going into the loft and raking through boxes and well, generally doing things that require opposable thumbs.
Mutt:  Indeed.
Me:  Well?
Mutt:  Why did it take you so long to get my food?
Me:  I’ve explained this to you before.  I was at work.  I go and do stuff that other people want me to do and that I don’t want to do.  They give me money for doing it.  I use the money to buy stuff like minibones and wine.  My time, when I do go out, is not exclusively devoted to servicing your wants or needs.  Look, I’ve completely lost the thread of this. What were we talking about?
Mutt:  You were lecturing me about how great machines are and how pathetic every species on our fine blue planet is, with the exception of homo impatiens, of course. That would be the species that is systematically destroying the planet so that the obese can become even more obese, that kills dogs for biting stupid people and that is going to elect an orange buffoon as leader of the world.  Oh, and it’s the one that follows me around picking up my poo.
Me:  Sapiens
Mutt: 🙂
Me:  But we can ask Alexa questions and she understands them and then she does stuff
Mutt:  Like what?
Me:  Well, she can turn the lights off
Mutt:  Go on
Me:  And on again.
Mutt:  Go on.
Me:  And she can tell me the time and she can play stuff on Spotify and she can tell me what appointments I have
Mutt:  Go on
Me:  Well…that’s about it.
Mutt:  So let me get this straight. You’re babbling away here like a spaniel on Pedigree Chum just because you’ve got some device or other that can turn the lights on. What’s wrong with using your fingers?

I gave her the Vicky.  It was too good an opportunity to pass up.

Mutt: Oh! Come and see the violence inherent in the system! Help. I’m being depressed!
Me: It’s repressed.
Mutt: 🙂

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