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Have you met Alexa, Amazon’s Siri competitor yet?

(Tech News) Alexa is Amazon’s new product that seeks to compete with Siri, but it’s only for your house – is this cool or lame? Let’s discuss.

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I met Alexa. Here’s what I thought.

I’ve said it a hundred times, but the future is now, people. Having written about artificial intelligence (AI) and how smart these little things are getting, I more or less thought I knew what to expect when I met Alexa.

Alexa is the voice of the Amazon Echo, the company’s attempt at rivaling Apple’s Siri or Google Now. She’s a tiny speaker with a brain big enough to regurgitate random historical facts and add eggs to your shopping list. Although she has a surprisingly realistic human side, it’s clear that Alexa isn’t quite as sharp as we humans are yet.

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If you’re frustrated with Siri’s inconsistency or frequent misunderstanding of your questions and requests, it might behoove you to get used to the shortcomings of artificial intelligence – at least for the time being.

Alexa’s advantages and shortcomings

If you order Alexa to play a Beatles song, she’ll do so in a heartbeat, using Amazon Prime Music. However, if you try to speak to her mid-song, she won’t be able to hear you over the sweet, nostalgic jams. And if you’re thinking she might make a great friend on the go, think again. Alexa needs to be plugged in 24/7 to function at all.

On the other hand, it is nice that she’s always on and listening as long as she’s connected to a power source. You don’t need to press a button or whip out your phone to chat with her. Picture a smart, attentive roommate that won’t leave dirty dishes in the sink.

Despite a few technological shortcomings, which are to be expected, Alexa has an impressively sweet personality. She responds quickly and with enough wit to make you feel like you’re not talking to a half-pint speaker filled with wires. I think Amazon might have the advantage in beginning development later in the game. They know that people are looking for personable AI, and now they have the opportunity to build on that demand and deliver.

Off to a good start, but challenges remain

Recently, Amazon Echo updated Alexa with voice control for iTunes, Pandora, and Spotify, indicating they intend on improving, tweaking, and then improving some more.

That said, Amazon most certainly has their work cut out for them, since they’re competing against current AI and building from the ground up, rather than borrowing technology or taking pages out of similar books. This is a brave and commendable approach, and only time will tell how Alexa fares among the artificial intelligences of the future.

Although it’s too early to make a clear call, I think it’s safe to say that she’s off to a good start.

#AmazonEchoAlexa

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Staff Writer, Johnny Crowder, is a hard working creative with a Bachelor's Degree in Psychology and a deep passion for writing. In his other life, he is the front man for signed metal band, Dark Sermon. He has a wicked sense of humor and might literally die if he goes a day without putting pen to paper.

Tech News

Silicon Valley created tech for your family that’s too addictive for theirs

(TECHNOLOGY) Tech inventors are big on innovating and advancing tools, but a growing parenting trend in tech circles seems hypocritical.

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I consider myself an older Millennial. I was slowly but surely introduced to technologies as they became mass-marketable, but they didn’t affect every moment of my day-to-day life. I learned how to use computers in elementary school, I chatted on AOL as a preteen, and when I was 16, my parents gave me my own cell phone “for emergencies.” I promptly dropped it under the car seat, where it remained for a year, before I or my parents even noticed that it was missing.

In less than a generation, our relationship to cell phones has transformed completely. For one thing, my first cell phone didn’t have a touch screen. It didn’t have an internet connection. Hell, for an entire year, I didn’t even use the damn thing.

Fast forward to 2018, when your children can learn to use an iPad at the same time that they learn to use a toilet.

Interestingly, the tech whizzes who designed much of the technology that now pervades nearly every moment of our lives seem wariest of the negative impact screen time might have on kids. The NYT reports that the trend amongst Silicon Valley parents is to severely limit or even ban cell phone use by their children.

Parents in all echelons of the tech industry are limiting their kids’ exposure. Steve Jobs kept iPads out of the hands of his young children. The Gates offspring didn’t receive cell phones until high school (just like me, in 2001), and Tim Cook discourages his nephew from using social networks.

These concerned parents describe the addictive potential and negative consequences of screen time in increasingly pessimistic terms.

Athena Chavarria, a former Facebook employee, believes that “the devil lives in our phones and is wreaking havoc on our children.”

Chris Anderson (yes that Chris Anderson), former editor of Wired and founder of GeekDad, says that when it comes to screens, “On a scale between candy and crack cocaine, it’s closer to crack cocaine.”

Parents are even making contractual agreements to make sure their kids don’t use screens while under the supervision of their nanny or babysitter.

Like basically every human idea or invention ever, connected, screened devices reveal that our ability to create new technologies far outpaces our ability to understand the consequences – positive or negative – of that tech.

Those closest to the situation – the inventors themselves – are often the first ones to sound the alarm when they realize that their hard-won advancements may not have been such a great idea after all.

Said Chris Anderson of the addictive nature of cell phones, “We thought we could control it. And this is beyond our power to control.”

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Amazingly fun tech toys that are secretly educational

(TECHNOLOGY) STEM toys for children are fun *and* educational – here are some that have caught our eye.

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STEM tech toys for kids

There’s a new trend amongst startups – and amongst kids’ toys: educational playthings that teach your little ones STEM skills like programming and coding.

Toys that double as learning tools are nothing new, but digital, connected technology still is, and so is the idea that your toddler can get a leg up in the tech industry by getting an early start.

Parents, universities, and economists seem concerned that acquiring STEM skills will soon be the only way to guarantee a good job, despite reports from the U.S. Census Bureau that 3 out of 4 STEM majors end up in non-STEM fields anyway.

So if your kid is more into, say, baseball or dancing than computers, you might be wasting the pretty pennies these high-powered educational toys will cost you.

Kids, with their alarmingly short attention spans, are as likely to toss these toys back into the toybox as any other. But if your wee one seems to have a knack for all things technical – or if you’d just rather see them learn how to build a device than passively stare at one all day – then check out TC’s guide to STEM toys.

Even though these toys are marketed towards the younger set, I found myself a little envious, wishing I could take a few for a test drive – especially since many of them are modern, high-tech reboots on old standbys from my childhood.

Lego’s Boost Creative Toolbox uses the same classic Lego blocks, but allows you to animate and program your creations.

Several products cross-market with some of my childhood favorites; Dash Robotics has teamed up with Mattel to make Jurassic World robots, and Kano makes a Harry Potter Coding Kit that teaches kids to program a wand that can interact with digital content. There’s even Electro Dough which is basically electrically-conductive Play-Doh that can light up and make sounds. I want!

In fact, a lot of the toys combine arts ‘n’ crafts with STEM lessons. Adafruits makes a marker with electronically conductive ink that can light up circuits and interact with computer programs, and an electronic pencil that synthesizes music. Root Robotic’s little bot can draw pictures and compose songs.

For the more straightforward tech nerds, Makeblock, Evo, Robo Wunderkind, and Wonder Workshop all make programmable robots – a big step up from the “artificially intelligent” Furby’s of my childhood. Sphero’s Bolt is a ball-shaped robot, while Airblock makes a programmable hovercraft.

There’s the Pi-top Modular Laptop that teaching kids coding, and there are even opportunities for kids to build their own electronics; Kano offers a build-it-yourself computer.

The holidays are just around the corner – but whether STEM educational toys will be the next Tickle Me Elmo remains to be seen.

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A deepfakes creator for text so realistic it can’t be made public yet

(TECHNOLOGY) You know about video deepfakes, but the technology exists for doing convincing deepfakes for text. It’s so good that they aren’t ready to release it to the public yet…

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Artificial intelligence is being used to complete more and more human tasks. But as of right now, news stories you read online – including all the articles here on American Genius – have been written by real human beings.

Until recently, even the most intelligent computers couldn’t be trained to recreate the complex rules and stylistic subtleties of language. AI-generated text would often wander off topic or mix up the syntax and lack context or analysis.

However, a non-profit called OpenAI says they have developed a text generator that can simulate human writing with remarkable accuracy.

The program is called GPT2. When fed any amount of text, from a few words to a page, it can complete the story, whether it be a news story or a fictional one.

You already know about video deepfakes, but these “deepfakes for text” stay on subject and match the style of the original text. For example, when fed the first line of George Orwell’s 1984, GPT2 created a science-fiction story set in a futuristic China.

This improved text generator is much better at simulating human writing because it has learned from a dataset that is “15 times bigger and broader” than its predecessor, according to OpenAI research director, Dario Amodei.

Usually researchers are eager to share their creations with the world – but in the case, the Elon Musk-backed organization has, at least of the time being, withheld GPT2 from the public out of fear of what criminals and other malicious users might do with it.

Jack Clark, OpenAI’s head of policy, says that the organization needs more time to experiment with GPT2’s capabilities so that they can anticipate malicious uses. “If you can’t anticipate all the abilities of a model, you have to prod it to see what it can do,” he says. “There are many more people than us who are better at thinking what it can do maliciously.”

Some potential malicious uses of GPT2 could include generating fake positive reviews for products (or fake negative reviews of competitors’ products); generating SPAM messages; writing fake news stories that would be indistinguishable from real news stories; and spreading conspiracy theories.

Furthermore, because GPT2 learns from the internet, it wouldn’t be hard to program GPT2 to produce hate speech and other offensive messages.

As a writer, I can’t think of very many good reasons to use an AI story generator that doesn’t put me out of job. So I appreciate that the researchers at OpenAI are taking time to fully think through the implications before making this Pandora’s box of technology available to the general public.

Says Clark, “We are trying to develop more rigorous thinking here. We’re trying to build the road as we travel across it.”

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