Fast Tips Friday: Alexa’s more like Star Trek’s computer than she used to be

Post published 6/14/19 – When the original Echo was first released I spent a lot of time cautioning readers, family and friends that Alexa wasn’t like the talking computers they’d seen in sci fi movies and TV shows. It’s been just about four years since then, and based on my own recent tests I can say Alexa’s more like Star Trek’s computer now. A LOT more.

Over the past 4+ years, thanks to lots of customer feedback, plenty of intensive engineering and the addition of access to multiple data storehouses, Alexa’s gotten much better at properly interpreting and correctly answering our requests. She still can’t make you an “Earl Grey, hot” cup of tea, but she can answer a pretty staggering array of factual questions now.

Channeling your inner Kirk…or Picard

If you’ve watched any Star Trek episodes or movies lately, you’ll notice that most questions posed to the computer are factual (e.g., how distant is a certain planet or star system, biographical information on Star Fleet personnel or enemies, etc.).

Given the types of factual queries consumers ask most frequently, Alexa’s really holding her own against the Star Trek computer in this area. She had access to Wikipedia right from the start but now she’s got a much larger and more reliable data source for general information from integration with Wolfram Alpha. Yelp integration has added local business information, and tighter integration with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) data sources has improved and expanded weather report functionality. IMDB integration added troves of trivia on movies, TV shows, actors and crew, and other integrations have helped to fill in the remaining gaps.

Here are just a few of the types of questions Alexa couldn’t answer back in 2015 when those first Echos shipped, but can answer now:

Is it legal to keep a capybara as a pet?

How long should I microwave popcorn?

What is dark matter?

How far is it to [location anywhere in the world]?

What do wild ducks eat?

When is the next episode of [TV show name]?

Is [store or restaurant name] open right now?

What is the current price of a share of [company name] stock?

What is the hourly forecast?

How many players are on a [sport name] team?

Nowadays I find Alexa can answer most of my questions, no matter how obscure or random. For special types of information or instructions, such as foreign languages, specific scientific jargon, cooking steps or other more involved queries, where Alexa falls short it’s usually easy to find a skill that can provide what I’m looking for.

Alexa’s still better at looking stuff up than guessing

Sometimes a Star Trek captain or a crew member asks the computer to “extrapolate”, which is a fancy word for ‘guess’ or ‘predict’, based on available data. Here, the computer’s got Alexa beat. Maybe some future version of Alexa will be able to handle that type of command, but for now she’s a “just the facts” kind of resource.

Next time you want to know something, ask Alexa. She may surprise you!