What Is Amazon’s Alexa and What Can It Do?
What can Alexa do? A better question might be: What can't Alexa do?!
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Amazon introduced the world to Alexa in 2014, but “her” real coming-out party was at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in 2017. Since then, Alexa has been warmly invited into our homes, with more than 100 million Alexa-equipped devices sold.
What is Alexa?
Alexa is a voice-controlled virtual AI assistant that “lives” inside Amazon’s smart speakers, Echo and Echo Dot, as well as its Echo Show smart display units and even Echo Frames, eyeglasses equipped with smart audio. Alexa also works with non-Amazon devices like smart speakers from Bose, Sonos, Harman Kardon, and others. You can even control Alexa away from home using the product’s mobile app.
But the real question is, what can Alexa do? Using artificial intelligence (AI), Alexa can answer a dizzying array of questions, help you organize your life, provide security, entertain you, and more. Just say the word “Alexa” to wake the device, and the virtual assistant is ready to help. The more Alexa “skills” you enable on the app, and the more Alexa accessories you add, the more it can do. You can even create customized skills to teach Alexa things it doesn’t yet know how to do. That’s something you can’t do with other virtual home assistants, especially if you compare Google Home vs. Amazon Echo. Read on for a list of 14 helpful things that Alexa can do.
Keep you informed
Wondering if it’s going to rain today? Or if the Cubs made a comeback in the 9th inning last night? Just wake Alexa with your voice and ask away. You can also ask Alexa to read you the latest news headlines from your favorite outlets, spell a tricky word, translate a phrase in another language, and even answer random questions like, “Who invented the Slip ‘N Slide?” or “What is the square root of 2021?”
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Stay connected with family and friends
Once you’ve synced your contacts with Alexa, just tell Alexa who you’d like to call, and on which device, like “Call Dad’s mobile.” You can place a video call the same way if you both have an Echo Show. You can also use Alexa’s Drop-In feature to instantly connect with any or all Echo devices in your Amazon household (even if they’re not physically located in the same home), or with any other device that has granted you Drop-In permission. If you’re more of a digital communicator, you can ask Alexa to send a text or read your email aloud. (Say “check my email,” and Alexa will read your messages from the past 24 hours.) You can even tell Alexa to delete, reply, mark as unread, and more.
Help you prepare meals
If you’re not sure how many teaspoons are in a quarter-cup, or whether a liter is more or less than a quart, ask Alexa for the correct measurements (“Alexa, convert … “). Need a new recipe to jazz things up? Enable one or more of the cooking skills and ask Alexa. Those with an Echo Show can opt to have tantalizing photos of dishes along with recipes that can be saved rotate through on the daily slideshow on their screen. Wondering which wine to serve with your dish? Enable the Wine Pairing skill and ask, “Alexa, which wine goes with…?”
When it’s time to call everyone to dinner, Alexa can work as an intercom. Just say, “Alexa, announce that dinner is ready.” Every Alexa-supported device in the house will broadcast the message. If you’re away from home, you can still make announcements. Just open the app, tap on the “Communicate” icon on the lower left screen, then tap “Announce” at the top and start typing or voicing your message. “Home in five. Rooms clean?” might be a good option. You can even add fun automated sounds, including a dinner bell or kiss, to your message.
Alexa users can listen to podcasts, audiobooks, and music, as well as play games and stream movies from Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, and more. It’s easiest with an Echo Show but you also can connect any other Echo device to an Amazon Fire TV stick or to an Alexa-equipped smart TV. Alexa can also play music through Amazon Music or you can connect it to your Spotify, Apple Music, or other music streaming account. Just say, “Alexa, play yacht rock”[or whatever genre you’re in the mood for. Alexa can play live radio after you pair it with an app like TuneIn Radio or Simple Radio. Alexa can also provide information about movies, TV shows, songs, and more. Now you can finally settle the debate over which Chris (Hemsworth, Pine, Evans, or Pratt) was in that rom-com.
Check-in on loved ones
Alexa’s “Care Hub” links two Alexa accounts, so you can check in on family members who may need assistance. It works in several ways: Once activated (both parties need to agree to it) family members can check the app to see an overview of their loved one’s activity feed, which can often be enough to assure everyone that Grandma’s up and about. It will say which category she activated—for example, “entertainment”—without violating her privacy and disclosing what she listened to. If she needs help, she can simply say, “Alexa, call for help.” You’ll get a notification on your phone, and you can decide whether to call her or send emergency services.
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Buy things on Amazon
It’s no surprise that Amazon made purchasing stuff from the parent company one of the top things that Alexa can do. Even so, this ability comes in handy. If it’s time to replace that garden hose, tell Alexa. If you don’t have an Echo Show, Alexa will add “garden hose” to your list and you can review different options in your app or on Amazon.com. If you ask for a garden hose on a screened device or in your Alexa app, Alexa will display hoses for you to review and select. You also can create a running grocery list (“Alexa, add bananas to my list”) if Whole Foods or Amazon Fresh is available in your area. As you build your list, Alexa will conveniently organize it into departments, like produce, dairy, and meat. When it’s time to shop, you can pull up the list in the Alexa app or in the Amazon/Whole Foods apps and websites. You can also share your shopping list. Just say, “Alexa, send my shopping list to [contact name],” and your husband will have no excuse for not picking up the milk.
Set the vibe
Alexa can control your smart devices, so if you’re having company, tell Alexa to start your robot vacuum, dim the lights, turn up the music, adjust the temperature and, later, lock the doors.
Start a routine
If you’d rather not issue a bunch of separate commands, you can set up a routine. For example, when it’s time for bed, just say, “Alexa, goodnight” and it will turn off your lights, lower your thermostat, lock your doors, or complete any other series of actions you specify. In the morning, you can have Alexa gradually brighten the room, start your coffee (you’ll need an Amazon Smart Plug for devices that aren’t already “smart”), read you the news, and check your calendar. You can start a routine for your kids to get their homework done or be ready for lacrosse practice. To create a routine, simply open the app, tap the “hamburger” icon in the upper-left screen, tap “Routines,” then tap the “+” in the upper right corner and follow the on-screen instructions. There seems to be no limit to what Alexa can do in this realm.
Guard your house against intruders
When Alexa Guard is enabled (go to More—>Settings—>Guard) it can detect certain sounds when you’re away from home, like glass breaking or smoke alarms beeping, and send you a notification. You can then listen to determine if you need to take action. The service is free, but Amazon does offer a paid upgrade that enhances what Alexa can do. Alexa Guard Plus can detect additional noises (door opening, footsteps) and play deterrent sounds, like a dog barking or a siren, when activity is detected. It also gives you 24/7 access to an emergency helpline.
Tell you a joke
If you need a mood lift, ask Alexa to tell you a joke; you can even get specific and ask for a Star Wars joke or a knock-knock joke. If you want a guaranteed giggle, try some of the funniest things to ask Alexa.
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Help you stay fit
You can configure any number of exercise skills in the Alexa app. When it’s time to work out, tell Alexa to open the skill, saying something like “Alexa, open My Workouts.” Alexa will tell you step-by-step how to complete each exercise.
Remind you of what’s important
If you’ve got a big meeting, ask Alexa to set an alarm. Alexa can remind you to take medications, call your mom on her birthday, and even where you hid those expensive earrings. You can also set up regular weekly reminders, say on trash night or for your child’s dance class.
Learn something new
If you want your digital assistant’s help with a skill not listed in the app, you may wonder what Alexa can do to be of service. The answer is: plenty! You can teach Alexa new skills using Blueprints, which are basically templates within the app that you can build on to customize a skill and create an even more personalized experience. One example is the Pet Sitter Blueprint, where you can create notes for your pet sitter about all your dog or cat’s needs, then all they have to do is ask Alexa where the food is, where toys are, etc.
Next, learn about another handy gadget: The Amazon Astro Home Robot.
- Pat Messenger, public relations manager at Amazon Devices