After an invitation-only preview for Amazon Prime members, Amazon’s Echo — a voice-activated personal assistant like Siri, but for your home — hit the market about a month ago, and people who have tested it seem to either love it or hate it. I’ve been using Alexa — the name of Echo’s cloud-based service, i.e., “the brain behind Echo” — for a few weeks now, and so far, I’m one of the lovers.
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 and on, play music, give me updates on the news and local traffic, add items to a shopping list, or answer basic questions by accessing information from the cloud. All I have to do is ask.
Some detractors say the Echo’s capabilities are too limited at this point to make it a must-have gadget, and this is true. It’s a young product. But 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, and anyone is free to use the application programming interface (API) for Alexa.
“With a few lines of code,” Amazon said recently, “[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, but the opening of the Alexa Skills Kit should be recognized as a gift to healthcare industries, too.
The Echo: A New Tool for Healthcare
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 — just by speaking to Alexa.
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 just 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?