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Amazon Echo's custom abilities should make the wizard more useful.



  Blueprint illustration of Amazon Echo Dot.

Photo Illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo / Slate. Photos by Thinkstock

Amazon made a smart move in the virtual war on assistants. To complement the wealth of features Alexa has developed and third-party developer capabilities, owners of Echo devices can now develop their own skills. Amazon calls the new feature "Alexa Blueprints". One of the hallmarks of good personal assistants – and less good points – is their level of personalization and customizability. We use our digital assistants in a number of ways, and although some features and answers are useful for most, the ability for such a wizard to learn and adapt to the way you do things is paramount to getting in To be useful to your life. It's part of why Alexa and Google Assistant are so much better informed and helpful than Apple's Siri. As these assistants know more about your day, your shopping habits, and your favorite apps, they ultimately become better helpers. But there is still room for improvement.

Alexa Blueprints does not fully fulfill this need, but it does take a big step to make Amazon's assistant more useful to you. Alexa Blueprints is a collection of 20 skill templates that you can customize for the devices in your home. Many of the templates are just fun: With "Inspirations" you can fill Alexa with a selection of your favorite quotes. With "Birthday Trivia" you can enter information about household members, which are then converted into a quiz game. and "Family Jokes" lets you pursue favorite jokes and use Alexa to recite them for a good laugh. Some are perfect for kids and students – the ability to create quizzes, flashcards and facts on a specific topic. Others are designed for families with small children so Alexa can tell you interactive stories with sound effects.

But the last category of Alexa Blueprints – part of the "At Home" section of these skill templates – may prove to be the most important in improving the overall utility of Alexa. There are four options in this section: custom questions and answers, house guests, babysitters and babysitters. The last three all follow the same general template. For example, a home visitor can say "Alexa, open my pet sitter" and then ask questions about caring for your pet – questions and answers that you have already filled out with this skill. You can use it to determine where the dog's leash is kept, when the parakeet should be fed or how often the litter box needs to be changed. You can also save emergency contact information within these skills, such as: B. for a veterinarian, a doctor or a neighbor. This feature may be particularly useful for airbnb, hotel, and rental hosts who can use this personalized capability as a repository for all the information guests need to know about a home, its facilities, and the environment.

For the Custom Q & A Blueprint, you do not have to summon a specific skill before asking questions: Whenever you ask Alexa this specific question, she responds with your answer. (And if the question you ask matches an existing Alexa query, your pre-programmed answer will trump Alexa's previously constructed answer.) The examples that Amazon offers tend to be silly: you could teach Alexa if you ask, "Alexa, who is the best mom in the world?" She should answer something like "I've just compared all the mothers in the story, and my conclusion is that yours is the best." But depending on your work, your household and your daily needs, this blueprint could prove extremely useful. You could use it to remember information that you are constantly forgetting ("Alexa, does Slate use the Oxford comma?" "Yes, of course, it's not a monster.") Or to collect unique non-google-capable wisdom of friends and family, like your grandmother's chocolate chip recipe.

These user-generated blueprints can also be abused. Fortunately, Amazon seems to have taken that prospect into account. When I tried to type a forceful blueprint into the response, I received a warning stating that a particular adult language is not allowed and was forced to rewrite the answer. However, this will not prevent inappropriate, igniting, or hateful responses from being programmed. For the question "Who is the best mother?" Could I successfully give the answer "women are stupid". (Fortunately, you can edit and delete the custom abilities you created after the fact.) Where the last, awesome The spooky output of echoing devices laughing on their own has garnered nationwide attention. We can no longer trust that every recorded and publicly shared Alexa response is a standard answer: it could be an Alexa Blueprint to "prove" the correctness of this answer.

The only other possible disadvantage of this new ability arises from a security perspective. Some of the suggested blueprints focus on family and friend centered facts and quizzes. Alexa will have these questions and answers stored in the "Skills You & # 39; ve Made" section of the Blueprints website. This will make any information you enter here vulnerable if your Amazon account is hacked (that is, do not share any information that you use or already use online as answers to security questions).
Even so, Alexa's new skills are a watershed in the way we interact with digital assistants. Echo owners now have more control over their personal assistants than was previously granted. Instead of Alexa being a black box with answers developed by Amazon, Alexa can answer questions that are unique to you and your family – she can say things that have a personal meaning to you and that can make your day smoother or more enjoyable. Instead of relying on artificial intelligence to handle the heavy burdens, Amazon has given the controllers something back, and that's a smart move.


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