Amazon Alexa

After fifteen years of marriage, my wife knows me too well. She knows she married a nerd, which I believe makes Christmas shopping easy*. She remembered how eager I was to add “JARVIS” to our home after we watched the first Iron Man movie together. This year, she chose one of my favorite Christmas gifts, the Amazon Echo. Today’s post on the utility belt will discuss Amazon’s hardware and artificial intelligence solutions.

How does it work?

Amazon has developed an artificial intelligence solution named Alexa. Much like its counterparts Siri, Cortana, and Google Assistant, Alexa can respond to questions and commands.


Amazon’s artificial intelligence solution is named “Alexa”. Alexa can respond to simple questions such as “Alexa, will it rain today”, “Alexa, please tell me the news”, or “Alexa, what’s on my calendar today?”.

Much like the Amazon Dash buttons, Alexa can also be used to place orders on Amazon. Find you’re running low on paper towels? Simply say “Alexa, re-order paper towels”, and thanks to Amazon Prime, they will be on my doorstep in two days.

Similar to other artificial intelligence solutions on the market today, you can also issue commands to Alexa. You can ask Alexa to play a specific song, music from a specific artist, or to play a specific genre of music. While you’re listening, you can ask Alexa to adjust the volume, pause the music, or stop it all together.

Where Alexa really shines however is in her ability to “learn new skills”. Just as installing an app on your cell phone grants you the ability to do things like order a pizza, start your vehicle remotely, or schedule a haircut, skills empower Alexa to interact with third parties. This means you can say “Alexa, open Dominos and track my pizza order”, “Alexa, tell 1800Flowers I want to send flowers to Lindsay on May 28th.”, or “Alexa, ask Automotive if I need to get gas on my way to work.”

There are thousands of skills available for Alexa, and more are added every day. This ability to “teach” Alexa new skills really puts the intelligence in Artificial Intelligence.

Smart Home

In the movie Iron Man, one of Tony Stark’s lady friends attempts to access a restricted area of the house and is surprised to hear JARVIS announce that she is not allowed to access that room. Pepper Potts, Tony’s personal assistant, appears and explains “That’s JARVIS. He runs the house.”

As described above, Alexa can provide tremendous assistance in our home by answering questions, ordering household products, and integrating with third party apps. I plan empowering Alexa to “run my house”, by responding to voice commands. For example, If someone says “Alexa, turn on CNN in the living room”, Alexa will work with my Logitech Harmony hub to turn on the TV, change to the proper input, and adjust the cable box to the correct channel. If I ask “Alexa, turn on the Air Conditioner in the Bedroom”, Alexa will work with the smart plug the air conditioner is plugged into to turn on the appliance.

There is a host of devices, all at surprisingly reasonable costs, which empower Alexa to truly “run the house”.

Hardware with Alexa Inside

To access Alexa, Amazon developed a line of hardware solutions for your home.

The Echo

The Amazon Echo is an internet connected device which has seven always-on microphones and built in speakers. The Echo uses all seven microphones with a technology called far field voice recognition, which means you can the hardware in a room and it will hear your voice from anywhere in the same room—no need to raise your voice!

The Echo also has an amazing speaker solution with 360 degree Omni-directional audio delivered from a 2.5” woofer, a 2.0” tweeter, and a reflexive output port. What this means you can ask Alexa to fill your room with music that sounds amazing.

The Dot

Much like its bigger brother, the Dot is an internet connected device which has always-on microphones and a built in speaker. The 7 microphone array on the Dot is identical to the Echo, meaning it can also hear you from anywhere in the room.

Unlike the Echo however, The Dot comes with a single built speaker. This means that while the Dot can listen and respond to commands for Alexa, it isn’t optimal for playing music. The Dot does however allow you to “Bring Your Own Speakers”, wired or wireless using Bluetooth.

The Tap

The Amazon Tap is billed as a “Alexa Enabled Portable Bluetooth Speaker”. This means that while the Tap has a microphone to listen to Alexa commands, it’s microphone is not triggered by voice recognition. To access Alexa from the Tap, you must press a button. It’s portability, with the built in battery pack, would make it ideal for travelers or other uses outside the home.

How Alexa Will Run My House

My master plan is to make Alexa “present” anywhere in my home, and empower her to control as many elements of my home as possible.

Due to the small room size and open floor plan, I’ll cover my living room and kitchen with the Echo. I plan on using multiple Dots to provide coverage for other rooms in the house such as my bedrooms, the laundry room, and my office. In some spaces, such as the laundry room, I’ll just use the built in speaker. In other spaces, I will use external speakers. In fact, I plan on pairing the Dot in my office with my Avaya E.169 Docking Station.

To empower Alexa to control our house, I ordered several smart plugs (Click Here) which will let Alexa turn things like air conditioners, lamps, or heated blankets on or off. I will integrate my Logitech Harmony entertainment hub with Alexa to give her the ability to control the TV and associated devices**.

Looking to the future, I plan on investing in a smart Thermostat and door lock. I also intend to replace the light switches with their smarter counterparts, which will allow both Alexa to control them as well as me to simply press the switch.

Did you get an Alexa enabled device over the holidays? Working towards building your own smart home? Tell me about it in the comments below.

* She, on the other hand, is near impossible to shop for.

** My poor mother-in-law cannot figure out our home entertainment system, not that I blame her. When I told my wife “Hey, your mom will now be able to just say ‘Alexa turn on CNN'”, I was greeted with an eye roll. Apparently not everyone is as jazzed about speaking to computers as I am. Sheesh.


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