January 2016 Viewpoint.pdf

Amazon’s Echo — a voice-activated personal assistant like Siri, designed for the home — has been available to the public for a year now and according to a recent GeekWire article, half a million users have literally said, “I love you” to the device. I was one of the early adopters, and I loved Alexa — the voice and “brain” behind the Echo’s cloud-based service — from the start.

If my hands are full, or I’m in the middle of something and don’t want to stop, Alexa will turn my lights off or on, play music, set a timer, stream a podcast, give me updates on the news and local traffic, add items to a shopping list and answer basic questions by accessing information from the cloud. All I have to do is ask.

Some early detractors said the Echo’s capabilities were too limited to make it a must-have gadget, but it’s still a young product and new capabilities are being added all the time. One of the latest, and most interesting, is the opportunity for anyone to make custom commands for Alexa via a free online automation service that uses an “if this, then that” approach to creating “recipes” that link to Web tools, social networks and smart home gadgets (a smart thermostat, etc.).

I believe there’s great potential under Alexa’s hood, and Amazon thinks so, too. The company has created a $100 million fund to support developers, manufacturers and start-ups interested in using voice-command technology. Indeed, anyone is free to use the application programming interface (API) for Alexa. “With a few lines of code,” Amazon announced in June 2015, “[developers] can easily integrate existing web services with Alexa or, in just a few hours, [they] can build entirely new experiences designed around voice.”

Several companies, including AOL, Intuit and StubHub, have already begun work on products that will use Alexa, and the opening of the Alexa Skills Kit should be recognized as a gift to healthcare industries, too. One caregiver who reviewed the Echo said the device has returned a sense of independence to her wheelchair-bound husband, who has Parkinson’s disease. He can once again do things most of us take for granted — make a shopping list, play his favorite music, check the weather forecast.

Alexa could also be used to remind homebound patients to take their medications. Patients who need to track their eating habits could easily use Alexa to record their food intake. Alexa’s listening capabilities could be used to monitor Parkinson’s patients’ voice quality as part of a larger health-monitoring program, or they could use it to call for help in health emergency situations.

AstraZeneca recently announced a plan to develop an app that coaches heart attack patients. Voice technology like Alexa’s could be similarly applied and might appeal to patients with poor eyesight or limited mobility who are recovering from traumatic injuries. The possibilities are virtually unlimited.

There are, of course, those who are resistant to change, who worry about privacy and the idea that “intelligent” devices are always listening. But whether we love it or hate it, technology is transforming our lives. I believe we should embrace the opportunities and use it for the greater good. What about you?