What the heck are digital assistants good for?
October 19, 2017 6:28 AM   Subscribe

I like the idea of Google Assistant, Alexa, etc. Having these things around feels like the future. But for the life of me I can't think of a single way in which these make my life easier. What are some useful ways you've put our new artificial servants to use?

I think I might just lack imagination. Are there novel uses for these things that can't be accomplished just as easily with a few taps?
posted by FakeFreyja to Technology (26 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
I find my Amazon Echo to be most useful to me in the kitchen (I love cooking and baking). When my hands are covered in raw meat juices/dough/oil/whatever, it is so, so nice to just be able to use a voice assistant to set a timer, do a unit conversion, remind me to do something, etc. Oh, and also to play music when I want some music during a marathon kitchen session.

Not gonna lie though, that's mostly the extent of how I use it. I occasionally use it to order Amazon products that we buy regularly (it still blows my mind that I asked Alexa for more dog food at 8 AM on a Sunday and it was delivered two hours later) but I don't use it for my normal shopping list. We like it for podcast, radio, and Spotify playback. We don't currently have any Smart Home features it can interact with so it doesn't control anything in our house.

But gosh, I love the cooking/baking-related help.
posted by olinerd at 6:44 AM on October 19, 2017 [4 favorites]

My partner has a couple of these around his house. I'm sure he uses them in lots of ways that I don't, but I use them for things like: asking what the weather's going to be like today, asking it to play music, telling it to turn lights on/off (his home lighting is automated), googling anything that i'd normally do with my phone. It's nice to be able to do all that hands-free (i.e. i can be going through the closet deciding what to wear WHILE google is telling me the weather forecast; i can listen to a traffic report WHILE getting breakfast together, etc.)
posted by yawper at 6:46 AM on October 19, 2017

We received an Alexa as a Christmas present last year, and it certainly hasn't been life-changing but it is handy for a few things:
1) We use it to set timers, a lot. Put something in the oven, say, "Alexa, set a timer for 10 minutes." You can do it with your hands full. It's convenient.
2) Likewise, reminders. "Alexa, remind me at 8AM on Tuesday to pack a lunch." Then at 8AM it says, "I'm reminding you: pack a lunch." Or while I'm at work, I can add a reminder for when I get home, "Remind me at 9:30PM to soak beans for tomorrow." Reminders aren't *perfect*, because they don't require acknowledgement, so if I'm in the shower when the reminder comes through, I can miss it pretty easily. But you can also see the reminders on your phone.
3) Adding things to lists; I notice that we're almost out of eggs, so I say, "Alexa, add eggs to shopping list." Or I remember some task that I need to add to my to-do list. (If you have an existing list app that you like to use it's pretty easy to set up an IFTTT or something to forward the Alexa list items to your preferred list.)
4) General knowledge and calculation kinds of stuff, "Alexa, how many meters is two feet six inches?" "What's the weather today?" Flight status, celebrity ages, what year was that movie released, stuff like that.
5) We have a wi-fi thermostat, so we can be in bed on a cold morning and say, "Alexa, turn the heat up five degrees."

Honestly it absolutely doesn't do anything that you can't do with a few taps on your phone (or a timer), but for me the voice interface is sufficiently frictionless that I use these little productivity things a little bit more than I would otherwise. The reminders have been really handy.
posted by mskyle at 6:49 AM on October 19, 2017 [5 favorites]

Are there novel uses for these things that can't be accomplished just as easily with a few taps?

Consider any time you've ever wanted to change a radio station or skip a song or check the weather or start a podcast but had both your hands busy (or dirty) with kitchen-work or cleaning or doing minor homes repairs or putting clothes away, and so on; they don't much save the taps as they save the time spent washing your hands / putting your tools down and re-engaging with the work you're doing -- it lets you keep doing exactly what you're already doing and then do another thing, in parallel.

I'd estimate that 85% of my use is in the kitchen, and maybe 10% in the morning while I'm running around before work. These are admittedly not novel uses, but they're really convenient ones.
posted by cjelli at 6:50 AM on October 19, 2017

95% of the time, the only thing I use our Echos for is streaming music. Having the ability to call up any song in my music library (I uploaded my music to the Amazon Cloud) or music in a much wider library (e.g. Amazon Music Unlimited) is great. I'm also convinced it's help my 5-year-old son speak more clearly; he *really* wants to be able to control Alexa.

Most other things are fun, but not particularly "worth it" to me (turning on lights, asking for the weather, asking for the news). Reordering things we routinely order from Amazon is also super-easy, but not a huge convenience over just doing it on a phone/computer.
posted by Betelgeuse at 6:51 AM on October 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

By the way, I asked a question a couple years back about whether I should keep the (first) Echo I got. I've bought two more since then, so I imagine you can guess how I feel about them now.
posted by Betelgeuse at 6:53 AM on October 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

Like others, the most useful applications right now are in the kitchen while cooking and streaming music throughout the house. We also have much of our home hooked up, so we can talk to the house to turn lights on/off in every room and control the temperature. We also manage our grocery list, and calendars and reminders for two accounts. There are growing pains now but I can absolutely foresee a time when I will be able to ask the house whether I have an ingredient on hand, get an accurate answer, and order it for immediate delivery, control most screens in the house, and I know that there are lots of things I can't even imagine yet.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 7:27 AM on October 19, 2017 [2 favorites]

I'm pregnant and planning on getting one once my child is born so I can note feeding/changing/sleeping times without having to get up and write it down. Hail the future! (Also my name is Alexa, so that will be interesting, maybe my husband will have to come up with a nickname for me.)
posted by tatiana wishbone at 7:29 AM on October 19, 2017 [6 favorites]

The assistant on my phone gets used to set an alarm for when my laundry is done in the wash, and in the car for handsfree calling or navigation.
posted by TheAdamist at 7:52 AM on October 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

I keep meaning to do a deep dive in the Alexa app to learn about and enable more skills, but so far have been relying on questions like this to educate me. Like others, I use it to verify conversions when I'm cooking and to generate quick facts ("Alexa, how tall is Dustin Hoffman?"). I bought a Dot for $35 on Prime Day, so I see it mostly as an amusing toy. She tells some funny jokes and her comments in response to "Alexa, good morning" are often interesting. My husband was thrilled when Alexa alerted him that it was "Speak Like a Pirate Day".
posted by DrGail at 8:03 AM on October 19, 2017

I got a couple Echo Dots for free. I liked streaming music, but then cancelled my Spotify subscription for unrelated reasons, and really haven't used them significantly since then.
posted by miyabo at 8:05 AM on October 19, 2017

The thing I use my Echo for the most is playing Jeopardy.

But it is also quite useful for timers and reminders (laundry, cooking, etc), music, checking the weather, and as a white noise/sleep sound speaker.

Sometimes I also ask it pointless but entertaining things just to see what it says, such as 'who killed JFK' or 'what is a horse'
posted by rachaelfaith at 8:16 AM on October 19, 2017 [3 favorites]

My mother is very techno-phobic, but she has adapted much better to Alexa than she would have something which would require "a couple of taps". Having to repeat herself sometimes is much less worrisome for her than trying to sort through menu options and click on exactly the right icon with shaky hands.
posted by The otter lady at 8:20 AM on October 19, 2017 [2 favorites]

I most often use Siri when my hands are wet or full or I'm across the room from my phone

- when is my next appointment (or "what do I have on my calendar today/tomorrow")
- weather (along with more fuzzy questions like "do I need an umbrella")
- timers/alarms as noted above
- trivia (what is the population of Guam)
- play Top Rated Songs, skip this song, shuffle playlist "Picnic"
- where is the nearest pet store (saves me the steps of opening maps and searching)
- open Facebook (saves me a step)
- send a message to John on mobile ("what do you want it to say") I am leaving now
- "when is the next Packers game"/"what was the score of the last Packers game"
posted by AFABulous at 8:37 AM on October 19, 2017

- create an appointment at 10 am on Sunday for brunch with Mary at Comet Cafe
posted by AFABulous at 8:39 AM on October 19, 2017

I don't think the "killer app" for voice-interface assistants has been created yet.

I have an Echo, and built an Alexa/Echo app for a work project as a proof-of-concept. I mostly use my Echo for music and weather, and occasionally as an alarm. A friend with kids has one, and they use it to help with homework, mostly by querying Wikipedia.

Controlling home fixtures is nice to have, but not really an essential use of the technology.

A good use of the technology would be a completely voice-operated word processor with perfect diction and the ability to edit on the fly, using only voice commands. This dove-tails with accessibility concerns for people who for various reasons cannot use keyboards and/or monitors.

"Alexa, is this the real life, or is this just fantasy?"
posted by JohnFromGR at 9:03 AM on October 19, 2017

In addition to everything above, as of recently Alexa works really well as a house intercom (if you have several of them). I can "drop in" on my husband downstairs when I'm upstairs instead of shouting and hoping he hears without me having to walk too far.

But yeah, lists (it's the only way we make a shopping list now), timers, quick questions (Google home is better than Alexa at this), controlling smart home stuff (the bedroom light with the switch across the room problem is solved), occasional games & diversions, etc
posted by brainmouse at 9:03 AM on October 19, 2017

We have a Google Home in the kitchen and I use it most often for music (either just asking it to play something on Spotify or "casting" to it from a phone or laptop), finding out what the weather is, and kitchen timers. We have a toddler and I'm sure the "ask random questions" feature will get a lot of use when she learns to talk (we already use it to make animal sounds for her, which is cute). Occasionally I have asked it when a business is open, or how long it will take to get somewhere.

My husband is very into home automation and he loves this stuff. So he has it set up so that if someone rings the doorbell, the Google Home says "someone is ringing the doorbell!" and it can also turn on and off things in our house. I think he envisions an amazing future where we never have to touch a lightswitch or appliance again, but that might be far off.
posted by cpatterson at 9:38 AM on October 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

My parents have been using theirs most steadily for:

* Music. My parents are both big music fans with varied tastes, and have loved the ability to just ask Alexa to "play [insert song, album, or musician, or genre here]" at a moment's notice. They love that all they have to do is just ask rather than finding the CD, putting it on, or even deciding what they want to play (my mother sometimes just says "Play bossa nova music" and lets it pick a station).

* Weather reports. Rather than turning on the news and waiting for the forecast to come up, they just ask Alexa for the weather and it tells them right away.

* Answering questions. Instead of being in the middle of a discussion and trying to remember "wait, what's the name of that movie we liked with John Cusack as one of the Beach Boys?" and getting sidetracked trying to remember its name, they can ask "Alexa, what was the movie with John Cusack as one of the Beach Boys" and it will tell them "Love and Mercy" and they can go about their day.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:30 AM on October 19, 2017

Seconding pretty much all of the above. Plus I use mine for white noise at night. I added a sound skill and just say "Alexa, open box fan sound" and it runs all night until I say "Alexa stop" in the morning.

I also enjoy the fact of the day when you say "Alexa, Good morning". Or I'll ask her to teach me something new/interesting.
posted by KleenexMakesaVeryGoodHat at 11:26 AM on October 19, 2017

I also enjoy the fact of the day when you say "Alexa, Good morning".

My parents get a kick out of the different answers you get if you say "Alexa - thank you!"
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:37 AM on October 19, 2017

I'm referring to Google Assistant on a phone.

It's excellent for scheduling. If I have an email with an event invite or a flight or a hotel booking, Google Assistant lets me know on my phone when I need to leave the house (etc...), what my flight and hotel reservations are, can bring up concert tickets, etc... Saves a fair bit of searching, it's just at my fingertips like magic.

It's pretty good for my commute as well. I have a few major routes home, one that is fastest usually, but can get congested and become slower than an alternate that's a bit more out of the way. So traffic advisories (on my lock screen even) give me advance notice if there's a traffic accident I want to drive around, for example.

It's also started giving me extreme weather advisories. This is handier in the winter than the summer, but still having a heat advisory in the mid summer meant that the cats weren't too uncomfortable at least a few times recently.

Finally, it has become my goto interface for a lot of small tasks: "Navigate to...", "parking near here", "Set an alarm", "Take a note", "Make a new appointment". Saves a fair bit of tapping, hunting and pecking. The "parking near here" search is especially useful.
posted by bonehead at 11:52 AM on October 19, 2017

I don't really use these either but I realized when I was visiting my folks in the suburbs that a lot of the voice-activated phone features are much more useful if you're driving.
posted by yeahlikethat at 2:50 PM on October 19, 2017

In Siri, in addition to the great stuff here (setting timers, doing quick math or conversions ("how many ounces in 1.75 liters?" "What's 5,280 divided by 36?")) I also send myself reminders all the time. Great also for the car. It sends the reminders to my dedicated to-do app ("remind me to ask Dave about the letter" or on "remind me on tuesday to buy milk" or "remind me when i get home to turn on the oven").
posted by nothing.especially.clever at 3:25 PM on October 19, 2017

I didn't have to spend 20 minutes coaching my daughter through writing her letter to Santa this year. She just asked Google how to spell the words she didn't know! Yeah I'm a bad mom.

I haven't tried asking it to translate to Russian yet, but I bet it can help me to brush up with some words I've forgotten.
posted by kitcat at 3:51 PM on October 19, 2017

My mom uses hers non-stop for kitchen stuff (timers, adding ingredients she just used up to her shopping list) and for music. My brother has automated his whole dang house -- Alexa is his alarm, telling him to wake up and then giving him the weather, while she turns on the lights to a dim, bearable level, and starts the coffee machine. He stumbles out of bed and by the time he gets out of the shower she's turned the lights all the way up and the coffee is ready and she's turned the TV to the news.

I am not quite so fancy. I have Alexa-compatible light bulbs, two in hard-to-reach fixtures that I need to turn on and off a lot, and two that I just installed that change color JUST FOR FUNSIES that throw light on a wall. I just this evening was programming some IFTTT routines so that when the Bears game starts, they turn orange and blue. (Reminding me I could turn the TV on!) It's pretty nice to just be able to tell the air that I want all my living room lights turned to a bright-light scheme early in the evening, and then later in the evening, tell it I want them dimmer, and then when I go to bed just ask Alexa to shut everything off, instead of going around the room turning all the lights on or off. (YMMV if you live in a newer house with rationally-located light switches but I've always lived in older ones where your lights are compromises with your limited and oddly-placed outlets!) I also use it to play radio stations (I use TuneIn). My kids like to play 20 questions with it.

"(Also my name is Alexa, so that will be interesting, maybe my husband will have to come up with a nickname for me.)"

You can change its name to "Echo" or "Computer"!

posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:42 PM on October 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

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