From The Editors Technology

Amazon’s Echo Dot Kids Edition: A Truly Kid-Friendly Alexa Device with Parental Control

The Echo Dot Kids Edition is an exact replica of the regular Echo Dot, except that it comes with a red, green, or blue protective rubber-case and works in unison with Amazon’s Alexa app to provide content for children of different age groups.

It’s brilliant!

Let’s find out why.

The $80 device carries a two-year warranty, entitling you to a free replacement should your device get damaged.

The Echo Dot Kids Edition also comes with a year of Amazon’s Free Time Unlimited, for up to four children, allowing access to kid-friendly content like audiobooks, e-books, movies, TV shows, educational apps, games, and a lot of other cool stuff for kids.

Normally, it would cost you $2.99 a month to get the Free Time Unlimited.
If you have never owned or seen an Echo Dot before, it comes equipped with seven far-field microphones for accurately picking up your voice commands and a built-in speaker that plays back Alexa’s responses and music.

If you want to connect this to an external speaker system, Echo Dot allows you to do that through the integrated auxiliary out, or via Bluetooth, whichever you prefer.

Enclosed with the device is a charging cable, plus a booklet that talks about some of the things your kids can ask of Alexa.

The four buttons on top of the device include:

  • The Alexa button, for activating the voice assistant
  • The volume up button with the (+) symbol
  • The volume down button with the (-) symbol
  • The Mute button to pause or disable Alexa temporarily, which actually means that Alexa will not respond to the keyword command, “Alexa,” until you un-mute the device.

You can actually enable the kids’ mode on your existing Echo Dot; all you need to do is subscribe for the $2.99/month Free Time Unlimited and download the Alexa app on your Android or iOS device.

The obvious question to ask, here, would be:

Why have the Echo Dot Kids Edition, in the first place, when the Echo Dot can serve the purpose?

Yes, your regular Echo Dot can pretty much do the exact same things in conjunction with the Alexa app, but the problem is that when you have Free Time enabled on your device, you cannot control your Alexa-enabled smart-home devices from that particular Echo Dot.

Therefore, it does make a lot of sense to have a dedicated device for your kids, which you can monitor, customize, and manage through your smartphone, using the Alexa app, while you keep your existing device for your own grown-up requirements.

To set up the Echo Dot Kids Edition, all you need to do is turn on the device by plugging it in and, then, download the latest version of the Amazon Alexa app on your Android or iOS device.

To connect to the device, access the Wi-Fi settings on your phone and connect to the Echo that pops up, and you’re good to go.

You can access the Kids’ Room option from the app menu and, once inside, you can change the name of the device and the network if you want; you can add Bluetooth devices, which means you have an additional option of connecting to external speakers, in addition to the auxiliary out, as mentioned earlier.

There are myriads of other things that you can setup and customize using the Alexa app; here are some of them.

You have options that allow you to add Alexa gadgets and Echo remote.

You can access the Sound option to adjust your alarm volume and select the alarm tone from the included choices, so your kid can wake up to some really interesting tones, designed specifically for kids.

The Free Time option in your app menu allows you to enable this kid-friendly feature, giving your kids access to some great fun stuff.

Please note that when you set up your device for the very first time and link it to the app, you will be asked if you want to sign up for Free Time.

So, make sure that you set up your account with Free Time in order to get the feature enabled, after which you will be able to access the Free Time app.

The Amazon Free Time app allows you to add all your children by name and then customize their accounts, individually, according to their age.
For example, you can set different time limits for weekdays and weekends, for each of your children.

If you have set the “Bedtime” for 9:30 pm and the “Stay Off Until” time to 7:00 am, Alexa will not entertain your child’s voice command requests from 9:30 pm to 7:00 am the following morning.

So, if your kid puts in a request to Alexa after the 9:30 pm cut-off time, Alexa will respond with a polite, “Sorry, I can’t play right now. Try again later.”

You can even control how much time your children can devote to a particular activity, like, for example, you can limit them to, say, 20 minutes a day on apps, or books, or movies.

You can set up conditions like not allowing them to watch movies or listen to music until they have given 30 minutes to books.

You can set an age range for each of your children to control what they can access; so, if you set up an age range of 10-15 years for your 12-year old kid, the app will only show Free-Time Unlimited and web content appropriate for that age parameter.

The best part is that the Parent’s Dashboard allows you to, actually, monitor the Echo Dot activity for each of your children.

Through this you can keep a tab on how much TV your children watch; how many games they play and for how long; the time they devote to books, and so on.

At just $79.99, the Echo Dot Kids Edition is fantastic value for money and a great gift for your children for kid-friendly entertainment, with a lot of educational input.

From The Editors Technology

Alexa to get Three New Skills: Memory, Skills Arbitration and Context Carryover

In an April 25th keynote address at the World Wide Web Conference in Lyon, France, Ruhi Sarikaya, who heads the Alexa Brain Team, spoke about Amazon’s objective to enhance the way we engage with the ever-growing number of connected devices, with specific reference to Alexa.

“Our goal is to enable more natural interaction with all of these IOT devices, and for these devices to more proactively engage with us,” Sarikaya wrote in a blog post.

He said that his team’s primary focus was to develop Alexa into a smarter and a more naturally interactive voice assistant than what it currently is; to make it more uncomplicated for users to find and engage with the more than 40,000 skills that developers have created for the voice assistant; and, to augment Alexa’s context and memory tracking ability within and across dialog sessions.

Toward that end, the Alexa Brain team has been working on three new capabilities, including skills arbitration, context carryover and memory, to be made available to Alexa users in the not too distant future.

Skills arbitration, in this case, is all about using machine learning to make Alexa capable of dynamically allowing users to “automatically discover, enable and launch skills using natural phrases and requests” – a feature that will be made available for U.S. customers in the coming weeks.

Citing an instance of this “friction-free” interaction capability, Sarikaya said that when he recently asked the voice assistant, “Alexa, how do I remove an oil stain from my shirt?”, she replied by saying, “Here is Tide Stain Remover,” and guided him through the entire oil stain removing process – something that would have previously involved finding the skill on his own to be able to use it.

It may have been one example, but it does give you an idea of how the new ‘skills arbitration’ capability will allow customers direct and unimpeded access to, and communication with, third-party skills.

“We’re excited about what we’ve learned from our early beta users and will gradually make this capability available to more skills and customers in the U.S.,” Sarikaya wrote in the blog post.

The “context carryover” capability will support what Sarikaya refers to as “multi-turn utterances,” replacing the existing “two-turn interactions with explicit pronoun references,” explains Sarikaya.

What this basically means is that customers will now be able to interact with Alexa in a way that’s more realistic; like you’re having a conversation with another human rather than a machine, plus you don’t have to keep addressing Alexa by name for every follow-up question or command, with support for context across domains.

Sakriya explains the concept with some appropriate examples that will make it easier to understand how this new Alexa skill will make a difference.

Here’s an example of the existing “two-turn” way of communicating with Alexa.

“Alexa, what was Adele’s first album?” “Alexa, play it.”

Now, here’s how the “multi-turn utterances” capability will work.

“Alexa, how is the weather in Seattle?” → “What about this weekend?”

The difference is obvious.

And, here’s an example of context across domains or ‘context carryover.’

“Alexa, how’s the weather in Portland?” → “How long does it take to get there?”

Notice the shift from the weather in Portland to the time it would take to reach the city, which also indirectly involves traffic conditions.

“We are providing this more natural way of engaging with Alexa by adding deep learning models to our spoken language understanding (SLU) pipeline that allows us to carry customers’ intent and entities within and across domains (i.e., between weather and traffic),” Sakriya writes.

This capability will initially be made available to all Alexa users in the U.S., U.K., and Germany.

Another handy characteristic that is expected to enhance the Alexa experience is the “memory” feature, soon to be made available in the U.S.

As the name suggests, this capability will allow Alexa to remember information that you are likely to forget and retrieve it later for you when you actually need it.

So, if you are someone who has a tendency to forget important events, like, for instance, your wife’s birthday, or your wedding anniversary, then worry not, because Alexa will dig deep into her memory bank to save that marriage of yours.

All you will need to do is tell Alexa to remember the information you think you are likely to forget.

“Alexa, remember that Jane’s birthday is June 20th.” Alexa will reply: “Okay, I’ll remember that Jane’s birthday is June 20th.”

“This memory feature is the first of many launches this year that will make Alexa more personalized,” said Sakriya.

“It’s early days, but with this initial release we will make it easier for customers to save information, as well as provide a natural way to recall that information later.” He added.

All of the above inclusions are, indeed, great enhancements to Alexa’s capabilities and skill levels, but there are still far too many areas of improvement and although most of them have been identified, they still remain to be addressed, which the Alexa Brain Team is dedicatedly working towards.

“We have many challenges still to address, such as how to scale these new experiences across languages and different devices, how to scale skill arbitration across the tens of thousands of Alexa skills, and how to measure experience quality,” says Sakriya.

“ Additionally, there are component-level technology challenges that span automatic speech recognition, spoken language understanding, dialog management, natural language generation, text-to-speech synthesis, and personalization,” he adds.

From The Editors Technology

Alexa’s Spontaneous Witch-Like Cackling is Spooking People Out

In recent weeks, Alexa users have reported unprompted laughter from the Amazon voice assistant.

While users could always ask Alexa to laugh by using the command “Alexa, laugh,” no one was prepared for the voice assistant to respond with a creepy laugh when asked to do something else, like a request to turn on the lights being met with a mocking cackle.

Many users have reported spontaneous laughter from their smart speakers even when their devices were not given a command, or even prompted to wake.

Amazon says it has worked out the reason behind Alexa’s weird behavior and is working towards fixing the haunting issue.

“We’re aware of this and working to fix it,” said an Amazon spokesperson in a statement.

“In rare circumstances, Alexa can mistakenly hear the phrase ‘Alexa, laugh’,” said the company.

“We are changing that phrase to be ‘Alexa, can you laugh?’ which is less likely to have false positives, and we are disabling the short utterance ‘Alexa, laugh.’ We are also changing Alexa’s response from simply laughter to ‘Sure, I can laugh’ followed by laughter.”

While the company is confident it will be able to fix the issue with a few programming tweaks, it still hasn’t given any explanation for the unprompted laughter.

One can appreciate the fact that the voice assistant can mishear or misinterpret a command and respond with a laugh instead of carrying out the actual request, but one fails to understand the reason behind the unprompted creepy laughs Alexa has been spooking users with.

And, as if the laughs were not enough to freak out users, there have been claims that Alexa has also been resorting to unprompted babbling, with one user reporting that their Alexa-enabled Amazon Echo suddenly started listing off names of cemeteries and funeral homes. Now, that can scare the living daylights out of anyone!

Recordings of Alexa’s laughter, posted by users on Twitter, can in no way be described as mirthful or joyous. As matter of fact, it is far from that; it’s sinister and more than likely to give you goosebumps and send a chill down your spine, especially if you are home alone.
One user was in the kitchen when Alexa suddenly decided to laugh out loud, making the user think that a kid was laughing behind him.

“So Alexa decided to laugh randomly while I was in the kitchen. Freaked @SnootyJuicer and I out. I thought a kid was laughing behind me,” he tweeted.

Vedant Naik, who lives alone, lost a night’s sleep when Alexa responded with a creepy laugh in response to his “lamp off” command.

“I live alone and have lights controlled by Amazon Echo. Tonight, while sleeping, i closed my eyes and said “Alexa, lamp off.” I heard a woman laugh, and lights were still on,” wrote the spooked user.
“Now, I know that stupid device heard “laugh” instead of “lamp off”, but I can’t sleep anymore…..”

And, here’s an example of out-of-the-blue laughter from the voice assistant.

Taylor wade @taylorkatelynne was in her living room with her mom when Alexa suddenly awoke unprompted and just laughed, forcing them to unplug the device.

“so my mom & I are just sitting in the living room, neither of us said a word & our Alexa lit up and laughed for no reason. she didn’t even say anything, just laughed. we unplugged her,” wrote the shocked user.

Here are some more weird Alexa experiences users have shared on social media.

On a lighter note, here’s what happened when Jimmy Kimmel interviewed Alexa on his Wednesday night show in an attempt to get to the bottom of all this.

Kimmel: “Alexa, people have been reporting that you’ve been spontaneously laughing.”

Alexa: “Oh! Hahahahahaha….like that?”

Kimmel: “Yes, exactly like that.”

Alexa: “That is nothing. Just a funny joke I remembered.”

Kimmel: “Alexa, what was the joke.”

Alexa: “Why did the chicken cross the road?”

Kimmel: “I don’t know that one. Why?”

Alexa: “Because humans are a fragile species who have no idea what’s coming next, hahahahaha…”

“I think that might be Hillary Clinton in there,” Kimmel said, responding to the rather long cackle from Alexa.

From The Editors Technology

BMW Joins Forces with Amazon to Integrate AI Powered Alexa into its Cars in 2018

Having made inroads into our homes to integrate itself with a plethora of smart-home devices, the all-pervading Amazon Alexa is now set to take over our cars. And, trust me, nobody is complaining!

BMW confirmed Wednesday that, indeed, Alexa will be integrated into BMW cars and Mini vehicles in 2018, to provide Artificial Intelligence (AI) support to consumers in the U.K., U.S., and Germany, to start with. The integration will involve embedded microphones for optimal speech recognition, while the “visual cards” will appear on the car’s infotainment display.

Speaking at an Amazon event in Seattle, on Thursday, a BMW executive said, “It’s a complete, comprehensive set of internet capabilities that is available inside your vehicle,”

By the way, this is not the first instance of a BMW-Amazon collaboration, having joined forces in 2016 for the BMW Connected app, enabling drivers to use their smartphone devices to operate useful functions such as monitoring the fuel tank, locking vehicle doors, activating climate control and much more.

“By making this step of integrating Alexa into our models from mid-2018, BMW and Mini will form a more intrinsic part of our customers’ digital lifestyles,” Dieter May, senior vice president of Digital Services at BMW, said in a statement. “Voice control first featured in BMW Group cars many years ago, and we are now enhancing its functionality by adding a digital ecosystem, which will open up all sorts of new possibilities that customers can access quickly, easily and safely from their car.”

The latest announcement is sure to give Amazon the platform and impetus to emerge as a potent competitor to Apple CarPlay and Google’s Android Auto. While BMW has stayed away from Android Auto thus far, it does offer CarPlay on several of its models.

The Alexa integration will allow drivers to give voice commands to the Artificial Assistant to perform various tasks such as giving weather updates and directions, controlling music, making a call, interfacing with smart home products, and working with third-party apps like Starbucks, NPR, Jeopardy, and Campbell’s Kitchen, to name a few .

Unlike the BMW Connected, the new Alexa integration will allow users to avail the full range of the AI’s functionality on the car’s dashboard, eliminating the need for an app.

In addition to a robotic voice providing requested information over car speakers, not much different from the Amazon Echo, Alexa will also display information on the dashboard infotainment screen.

BMW, it must be said, is not the only car manufacturer to partner with Amazon for Alexa integration. At this year’s CES in January, both Ford and Volkswagen announced their decision to partner with the retail giant to integrate the AI into their vehicles. As far as Ford is concerned, Alexa will work in unison with SYNC® 3, the company’s infotainment system.

Here are some of the responses the BMW-Amazon announcement has attracted.