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Tech Talk

Amazon, boldly searching where others have before

4/22/2015

If science fiction has taught us anything, education will likely be pointless in the future, as computers will know everything. Whether it’s 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 it’s even easier than that thanks to Amazon’s latest gadget, the Amazon Echo.logo_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 9-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, play back 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 moment’s 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 Apple’s Siri — will assist users with practically the same features as the Echo by calling out “Okay Google,” and even though they require pressing a button, 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 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.

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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 of the Enterprise, I’d say stick with your smartphone. And cheer up, you can always pretend your smartphone is a tricorder. CV

Patrick Boberg is a central Iowa creative media specialist. Follow him on Twitter @PatBoBomb.

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