Once upon a time, I had a job writing about home electronics. This suited me, because I like expensive stereos and huge TVs. And besides, there was the looming arrival of the smart house, a coming wave of appliances connected to the internet. I asked Dave Barry to comment on this impending age of wonder, and he said, “I don’t want my refrigerator and my toaster gossiping about me.” At one point, I tested a universal remote that was supposed to control all your electronic gear, but it was so finicky you just gave up and used each remote individually.
So, that was 17 years ago. My house was built a decade later, and the lights are still controlled by dumb switches. The doors open with a metal key. My TV is governed by three separate remotes. Basically, there’s very little about my house that would offend an Amish sensibility. And why is that? Alexa, please tell me.
That’s right: I decided to boldly step into the future that by now should’ve been the past, an electronic utopia where I can talk to my kitchen lights and they actually listen. I can command my thermostat to set the temperature. I can just shout the things I want and have them magically appear, albeit a day or two later. I got an Amazon Echo Dot, a magical hockey puck that makes my dreams come true via its captive disembodied robot lady, Alexa.
On the face of it, Alexa doesn’t do anything my phone can’t do. And yet, it’s just cooler to tell her what you want. It’s kind of like when texting first came out and seemed like a pointless redundancy, a retrograde step from actual phone calls. Now, who talks on the phone? Only total psychos.
Since I wanted Alexa to really pull her weight, I also bought a Philips Hue starter kit, which contains a pair of Wi-Fi light bulbs and a router thingie you need to control them. After introducing them to Alexa, so to speak, I bellowed, “Alexa, turn on the kitchen lights!” A moment later, she calmly replied, “OK,” and the lights came on. It was the most astounding thing I’ve ever seen, and I say that as someone who’s used a public bathroom in China. There are no stall doors, or toilets! You’re like, “Whoa, good morning, sir! Smoking a cigarette, I see. Well, you’re a multi-tasker, aren’t you?”
Besides the Hues, Alexa also controls my Nest thermostat—sort of. For an entity that’s supposed to resemble artificial intelligence, Alexa is often a raging doofus. For instance, the Nest is named “Hallway,” since that’s where it is. But if you tell Alexa, “Set the hallway thermostat to 75 degrees,” she won’t know what the hell you’re talking about. You have to say, “Set hallway to 75 degrees,” and not mention the word “thermostat,” even though that’s what you’re talking about. It’s like trying to talk trash about someone at a party who’s close enough that they might hear you but you’re gonna do it anyway and just use code words.
Unsurprisingly, one thing Alexa’s definitely good at is ordering things from Amazon. One night my wife, Heather, walked into the kitchen to see the kids scurrying away and heard Alexa asking to confirm an order. “Alexa, stop!” she yelled. This is Alexa’s most useful command and one she hears a lot. Like when you tell her to play Led Zeppelin, but Amazon Prime apparently doesn’t have the rights to that, so instead she plays a group called “Made Famous by Led Zeppelin,” which sounds like a sad alcoholic with a Casio synthesizer playing for tips in a North Vegas slot lounge. Alexa, stop, before I get depressed!
Among Alexa’s other talents, she’s also a search engine, although not a very good one. Her go-to response is, “Hmm, I don’t know,” which is what she said when I asked, “Who is Ezra Dyer?” Meanwhile, I asked Siri the same thing, and she came up with my contact info. Maybe that wasn’t fair, since Siri and I go way back, but come on, Alexa—ever hear of Google? I know you’ve heard of Siri, because I asked you. And you said, “I only know her by reputation.” Slick answer. Ostensibly neutral, yet kind of judgey. I like it. Anyway, Alexa, don’t feel bad. You work great as a timer!
Whatever her limitations, you quickly grow accustomed to Alexa’s help. One morning soon after buying the Dot, I strode into the kitchen and issued my divine command to let there be light. And… nothing happened. I quickly ascertained that some utter barbarian had flipped the wall switch. Who does that? We talk to our lights now. If I want to use a switch, well, I’ll go to one of the other 80 lights in the house. Because I only have the two Hues. Those things are expensive. The future is here, but only right over the kitchen table.