The biggest problem with Alexa / by Mike Hudack

We have three Echoes in our house. The one in the kitchen gets the most use. We use it to listen to the radio in the morning, to play music, set timers and do kitchen conversions.

We don’t use it for anything complicated. We’ve tried, but gotten frustrated quickly and given up. The reason is that Echo is bad at keeping state. It can’t have a conversation. I think part of this is a simple UI problem: it’s hard to have a conversation with a black cylinder. Humans offer lots of non-verbal feedback during conversations, and Alexa offers virtually none. Even if her software were capable of maintaining state during a complicated conversation as a human does a person talking with her would likely lose track because there’s no feedback mechanism other than words. She doesn’t even have different tones of voice.

Changes in intonation, posture, raised eyebrows, glances and shifting weight all help us keep track of where we are in a conversation. Absent these cues we use conversational pauses and tone. Absent these rougher cues — in messenger platforms or e-mail — we use written history to keep track of our conversation.

Alexa offers none of these affordances, and so she’s hard to have a conversation with. It strikes me that until she offers some kind of feedback other than words spoken in a monotone we won’t find it easy to do much with her other than ask for Radio 4 or an alarm when the boiled eggs are ready.