By Ian Jones @IDJONESPHOTOG
I’ve had Siri on my phone since 2011, but until recently, that was the extent of my talking to inanimate objects. My family recently bought Amazon Echo, a Bluetooth enabled speaker that also has a personal assistant named Alexa. We’ve only had the Echo for a couple of weeks, but the more time goes on, the more I find myself using it.
I love Siri, but her current capabilities are just the tip of the AI iceberg. On top of reminders and calendar events, you can ask the Echo tons of things: how your commute is, what time a movie plays locally, for the latest headlines, to play music from Amazon Prime, how old a celebrity is, how many calories in a bagel, and whether it’ll rain next Thursday. It seems Echo can do just about everything. If the mood for a Domino’s Pizza were to ever strike, you’re set: it’s possible to place an order through Amazon Echo. I do wish there were more pizza options, though. Domino’s is sort of scraping the bottom of the barrel, in my opinion.
There are even “skills” (apps,) that enable the Echo to communicate with appliances like your refrigerator, dishwasher, and even your car. Ford announced in January it’ll start rolling out Amazon Echo integration – starting with the Focus Electric, the Fusion Energi plug-in and the C-Max Energi plug-in.
Smart home integration is awesome, and has major possibilities for accessibility. Alexa works with a lot of smart home tech, including smart light bulbs. There’s a bit of setup involved, since each bulb has its own wi-fi network that Alexa has to connect to, but it’s fairly simple. When I’m ready for sleep I just say, “Alexa, turn off my lights.” The Nest Smart Thermostat integrates with Echo and has an app you can use to control your home’s temperature.
While it’s a mere convenience for some, for others, things like voice control would be life changing and there’s a lot of potential: I don’t think it’s outside the realm of possibility for Alexa, Google Home or any other smart home device to be able to learn to call an ambulance or the fire or police department and unlock the door, in the case of an emergency.
But price is a problem for some, says Shalene Gupta in her article “For the disabled, smart homes are home sweet home” on Fortune.com. She says, “a Nest thermostat … runs $250. Similarly a (smart lock) … costs $250.” Since the base payment for Supplemental Security Income is $733, that’s a hefty price to pay. Not to mention medical insurance definitely doesn’t cover the technology. The only thing left is to apply for grants – and those don’t always get approved. Gupta says that the non-profit Tunnel to Towers, which works with disabled veterans, built a $600,000 house, with $100,000 of the price invested in smart home tech.
A couple of weekends ago, I went to the Abilities Expo, a convention in San Jose for products and technologies for the disabled. I saw a lot of cool stuff there, but there were three notable companies absent: Apple, Google, and Amazon. Why weren’t they there, promoting their newest tech to 19 percent of the population? Apple could’ve used the opportunity to promote its Watch’s accessibility features, which sets it apart from other smart watches. Amazon could’ve pushed people to buy the Echo, and Google could’ve promoted its new Home device. It’s a missed opportunity for all three companies, which is a shame. I wonder what happened. Maybe they just forgot to set a reminder for themselves.