Amazon, boldly searching where others have before

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If science fiction has taught us anything, in the future education will likely be pointless as computers will know everything. Whether its as far off as Star Trek or as immediate as 2001: A Space Odyssey computers will handle all the tough issues while we’re simply along for the ride. While 2001 has already passed us by and computers have yet to start killing us, computers and internet searches have virtually erased the need to retain information. Need to know the capital of Azerbaijan? The answer is one web search away on the smartphone in your pocket. But actually its even easier than that thanks to Amazon’s latest gadget; the Amazon Echo.

When Captain Picard asks the Enterprise’s computer how long their journey to the Klingon homeworld will be does he reach for a device in his pocket? No, he simply says “Computer, how long…” That is the simple logic behind the Amazon Echo. For $200, Amazon will ship you a nine inch tall cylinder that is always on, connected to the internet, and ready to deliver any information. Even better, the Echo will walk through recipes, set reminders for later, take dictation, read your email, playback your music library and much more. After a simple set up and assigning a name to the Echo, users are ready to call out to their Echo for any information they require.

Now you might be wondering, if the Echo can answer any question at a moments notice does that mean it’s always listening? Yes, but not in the invasion of privacy, eavesdropping scenario. The Echo is always listening for its name. For an Echo to work, you can’t simply yell out a question and receive an answer. Just like Captain Picard must first call out “Computer,” to activate the Echo service, users must first call out the name assigned during setup. Besides protecting users from Amazon surreptitiously spying on Echoers, this fail safe keeps the Echo from burning up your data connection and answering any question or command called out in your house.

As cool as the Echo is, it is far from a necessity. Android phone users already have a personal assistant ready to be called upon. Google Now – the Android equivalent of Siri – will assist users with the practically the same features as the Echo by calling out “Okay Google,” and even though they require pressing a button Apple’s Siri or Windows Cortana also answer audible call outs. Also the Echo doesn’t have the option to run on battery power, it’s always tethered to a power socket. Worst of all, smartphones offer so much more than just personal assistance so spending $200 dollars on an Echo is actually rather limiting.

The concern of course revolves around the impact on the brain of all information being readily available with no need for memorization. Well the jury is still out on the long term effects on brain health, but a highly publicized UCLA study on the impact of web searches on the brain found that turning to the internet for answers actually stimulates the brain and stimulates brain function. So no matter if you’re Googling, Wiking, or Echoing your trivial web info hunt may be exercising your mind.

Should you pick up an Echo? Well it is a nifty piece of hardware but it’s hard to get past the fact it’s wholly unnecessary and constrained. I’d say unless you’re a gadget addict or planning to put on a Starfleet uniform and pretend you’re on the bridge the Enterprise, I’d say stick with your smartphone. And cheer up, you can always pretend your smartphone is a tricorder.

Patrick Boberg is a central Iowa creative media specialist. For more tech insights, follow him on Twitter @PatBoBomb


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