At Home with Tech

Figure out which consumer tech you need, the right gear to buy and how to use your new gadgets.

Tag: Alexa

Why I Bought an Amazon Echo for My Aging Parent

I’ve introduced my father to Alexa. Now, I realize why a digital voice assistant in a smart speaker is a must-have device for the elderly living independently…

My father just celebrated his 86th birthday. He lives on the Upper East Side in Manhattan. Yes, he’s on his own, and he likes it that way… mostly.

To celebrate his birthday I took him out for a big dinner at TAO Uptown.

He loved his meal and especially his molten chocolate cake with birthday candles.

He’s doing okay. But he’s… 86. And he uses a walker. And he a little unsteady on his feet. And yes, I worry about him.

Fortunately, he has some help at home. Plus, I’m able to see him every week or so to check in, have a meal with him and reminisce about my mom.

And it’s really great that he’s relatively adroit using his iPhone. FaceTime calls have also been a useful way to keep in touch. Although lately, he’s fumbling a bit with his iPhone and doesn’t always answer correctly on the first try.

So, I worry about being able to reach him just to make sure he’s doing okay.

Hello, Amazon Echo
I gave my dad an Amazon Echo for his birthday. He’s always fashioned himself a user of new and cool consumer tech. (In the 1970’s, I remember him running around wearing some crazy Seiko TV watch that didn’t work very well.)

When he unwrapped his present, he looked a bit confused… He didn’t really know what a voice-controlled smart speaker was. But when I unboxed the Echo in front of him, powered up Alexa and started our first conversation, my dad was instantly hooked.
(Gifting note: I had previously set up the Echo at my house and figured out all of the interface details using the Amazon Alexa app on my iPhone. Then, all I had to do with my father was update the Echo’s Wi-Fi setting to his home Wi-Fi network.)

More than Music
Originally, I figured getting my dad a digital voice assistant would be a great way for him to stream his favorite tunes from the ‘30’s and ‘40’s. That functionality was mostly all that I was focused on. I also expected that my father would enjoy chatting with Alexa and would find her encyclopedia of knowledge charming. Perhaps her alarms and reminders would also be of use.

But after I bought the Echo and began setting it up, I quickly realized the massive opportunity it offers to help me better keep in touch with my aging father. Here’s how…

Alexa Calling
It’s so easy for him to contact my iPhone by just telling Alexa to call me by name.
(Yes, the Echo can make a phone call.)

That’s certainly a lot simpler for him than trying to find and fumble with his iPhone during a critical moment.

Drop In
Or perhaps more importantly… his Echo gives me two additional ways to reach out and contact him using the Amazon Alexa app on my iPhone.

When I call his Amazon Echo with my Alexa app…
The Echo immediately starts to glow and ring loudly. Then, all he has to do is say “Alexa… Answer.”

He also doesn’t have to get up to answer my call if his iPhone isn’t in his pocket.
(He moves pretty slowly.)

But the second way for me to connect with him is the real game changer…
It’s the “Drop In” feature, which essentially turns my iPhone and his Echo into a walkie talkie system.

A tone on the Echo announces that ‘hailing frequencies are open.’ Then, when I start talking, the Echo projects my voice throughout my dad’s apartment and I can hear his response.
(He doesn’t have to tell Alexa to do anything.)

Of course, for this to work, he needs to be at home and within earshot.

Yes, it may feel intrusive and a bit big brother-like that I can drop in at any given moment. But for an aging parent who is living on his or her own, I don’t think this is such a bad thing… at all.

In fact, it’s great.

New Connections for the Long Term
I’ve already found our new technology-infused interface quite useful, although the Echo doesn’t replace the clarity of a cell-to-cell connection. So, his iPhone isn’t going out of style any time soon.

But the fact that I suddenly have these new methods to remotely reach him is amazing.
(Whether he develops a long-term relationship with Alexa is almost beside the point.)

“Hey Siri” and “OK Google”
So, I know that Alexa isn’t the only game in town. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Siri on the Apple HomePod or Google Assistant using Google Home. I’m sure my father would enjoy using these speakers just as much as Alexa.

Either way, introducing a digital voice assistant via a smart speaker into my father’s apartment has immediately had a positive effect on his life (and mine, as well).

The Conversation Continues
No, Alexa isn’t a real person. And my father still needs to navigate the challenges of living alone at 86 years old. But now, he has something to talk to 24/7 which responds to him using AI in a friendly, human voice.

And Alexa is only getting smarter. What will she be like in only a few more years?
(We’ll be talking with her.)

Futurists have been talking about this for a long time, and my father and I have only just entered the first chapter of the story.

Whoa.
It’s not science fiction… anymore.

If you’ve got an aging parent living alone, you should really consider introducing a new ‘friend,’ like Alexa.

Don’t Ask My Mommy. Ask Google.

How are you supposed to survive in a computerized world? If you’re a seven year old, ask a computer… of course! If this gives you a little agita as an adult human being in the real world, you might want to read on…

So, my wife and I were visiting another family’s house to pick up our seven-year-old son from his play date the other day. The adults were chatting a bit before the handover as the kids wrapped up their activity, which happened to be playing Minecraft, a popular videogame where you create your own worlds.

Then I noticed the kids ran into some kind of challenge in the game, and this is what I overheard…

Human child #1:
“How do you build the portal to the End in Minecraft?”

Human child #2:
“I don’t think my mommy knows how to do that…”

Human child #1:
“Don’t ask my mommy. Ask Google Home. Maybe… Siri.”
(They didn’t have an Alexa in this particular home. But I don’t want to leave Amazon out of the conversation.)

A.I. Always has an Answer
All right. Let’s pause right there to discuss the significance of this interchange. A couple of seven-year old-boys have decided to bypass their parents (moms) and go right to today’s A.I. to solve their problem.

Hey, it’s not like I don’t Google questions all of the time at my computer, but I was a little shocked at how flesh and blood parents were suddenly and completely eliminated from the equation.

Now granted, in this particular situation, these adults wouldn’t have known how to get to the ‘End.’ So, you’ve got to give the kids some points for their instincts.
(That night, after Googling ‘the End,’ I learned that it’s the third and final dimension in Minecraft.)

Okay… the kids were trying to figure out a shortcut to the end of the game.
(Is that cheating? Or is it simply being innovative… like beating the Kobayashi Maru test?)

Anyway…

Google Home couldn’t articulate a useful answer, but the young hackers-in-training got some traction with Siri on the resident iPad. Siri opened up a wikiHow page for them, which held some key details.

Apparently, getting to the End requires you first to go to the Nether.
(I have no idea what I’m talking about.)

The Lesson of the Journey
Guess what… their little online research project worked! The wikiHow page contained instructions on how to build a portal to the Nether, which the kids promptly executed.

I heard… “OMG… we’re going to the End! This is so great!!”

For the record, their progress halted at the Nether. The map to the End remained out of reach. But my son was super excited by the prospect that they were moving in the right direction.
(He really loves exploring this vast digital world. He also enjoys reading Minecraft adventures in physical books and looking through how-to-build Minecraft books.)

Discounted Daddy
To be honest, I felt a little schadenfreude to observe their quest for the End not end in total success.

Because as a parent of a seven year old, I thought Daddy was still perceived as all knowing. Did you notice that neither boy even mentioned his father during the tech query?

No… I didn’t have the answer. And I don’t think the other daddy would have had it either… without Googling a bit.
(That said, he’s very much at home with his tech.)

And no… this is not a gender thing about why the kids bypassed their daddies.
It’s a species thing about why the human adults were circumvented to quickly get to preferred artificial intelligence.

And that seven year olds already expects today’s A.I. to be able to correctly answer any question.

What’s the Truth?
Okay, Daddy…
I suddenly realize this is going to require some immediate focus as a parent.

Because even though yes… there’s an answer to any question you pose to a search engine, there’s actually a thousand answers, if not more.

As an adult, it’s your job to figure out the ‘truth’ on any number of topics.
(And that’s harder today than ever.)

And that’s going to remain an ongoing challenge for every human for the foreseeable future.

For an elementary school-aged child who can now simply project a question into a room, and an A.I. enabled speaker immediately responds, that’s a resource that really needs some adult-level perspective.

Otherwise we won’t have to wait until advanced artificial intelligence or the singularity arrives for humans to hand over all of the keys to knowledge and independent understanding.

Wow.
I’ve got some work to do.

Daddy (human) is on it.

%d bloggers like this: