More than any other device, Alexa has become our closest approximation of artificial intelligence. She has a voice and personality, and if you ask the right question, she’ll even get sassy with you. Users even refer to Alexa as “she.” We usually prefer to say her name, rather than the name of the device itself, Amazon Echo.
Recently, Alexa has made the news as it was reported that a Portland, Oregon couple’s Echo recorded their conversation and sent it to a friend on their contact list. Amazon apologized saying simply Alexa assumed the wrong command was issued.
You might be surprised at what Alexa has recorded you saying. My Echo recordings included conversations that had no words even sounding like Alexa. Click here to learn how to hear and delete anything your Alexa has recorded.
In fact, I recently released a special podcast about Alexa and how it records and saves conversations. Click here to listen now while you read this article. You can find my “Komando on Demand” podcasts on iTunes, Google Play or where you get your podcasts.
Most striking of all is that Alexa can learn. She amasses skills, day by day, and these skills improve over time. She gets to know you, and she learns from the sound and cadence love your voice. Together, millions of Echo owners are nurturing this imaginary friend, crowdsourcing her education like a legion of human mentors.
You can also make your own Alexa questions and answers. I played a practical joke on my son.
I told him to ask Alexa, “Alexa, who is the best mother in the world?” She responded, “I searched the entire internet and the entire history of the world. Best is subjective but the answer is clear. The best mother in the world is Kim Komando. Now, go clean up your room.” If you’d like to program certain questions and answers, click here for the steps. It’s a lot of fun!
For many owners, Alexa is more than a mere virtual assistant; she has become something like a domestic companion, a Rosie or R2-D2 that can also order takeout.
Here are 21 commands that even seasoned Echo users may not know. Many of them are useful, some are fun, and others give the illusion that Alexa is as cognizant as we are.
Science fiction has long anticipated a “universal translator,” and Amazon is working to make that dream a reality. Alexa can already translate dozens of languages, from Spanish to Hindi, thanks to its Translated skill.
Start by saying, “Alexa, open Translated,” then ask, “How do you say [phrase] in [language]?” Amazon is planning to develop a real-time translator, so stay tuned.
2. Play a song based on lyrics
You’re pretty sure it’s a band from the Nineties. You can remember that the refrain goes something like, “the time of your liiiife.” But you have no idea what the other lyrics are, nor what the title is.
With this skill, all you have to do is say, “Alexa, play the song that goes [lyrics].” Then Alexa will say, “‘Good Riddance,’ by Green Day,” and you may be shocked that you never knew the actual title.
3. Calculate Distance
It’s easier to plan your day when you know how far you’ll be traveling. You can get a much better sense of whether you can squeeze in a Costco run in between meetings with clients and picking up your grandkids.
You’ll have to give two different geographic points, such as recognizable landmarks (the Eiffel Tower) or a clear street address (221B Baker Street). If Alexa knows where you live, you can also just say “home.”
Just ask Alexa, “How far Costco is from home?” and Alexa will use GPS to give you the driving distance.
Your phone has a basic weather report, and with apps like Weather Underground, you can check precise meteorological patterns. If you’re sitting in your living room, just too far away from a phone or an open window, you can say, “Alexa, what is the weather going to be like this afternoon?”
5. Wind chill
Then again, the actual temperature means very little when there’s an icy wind slashing through your light spring jacket. If it’s 50 degrees outside but blustery, it can easily feel like 30 degrees.
If you want to know how the temperature is going to actually feel outside, ask Alexa, “What’s the wind chill?”
6. Dollars and cents
Without a calculator, most of us can only remember the most basic arithmetic, which is inconvenient when we’re calculating tips for the pizza delivery guy or we’re trying to figure out quarterly tax payments.
Conversions from English to metric can be similarly tricky, especially when we’re actively doing something, like making measurements for a new IKEA couch.
Alexa can understand a range of mathematical questions, such as: “Alexa, how much is $725 minus $48.34?” Or: “What is 324 miles in kilometers?”
7. Drive time
Ask how long it’ll take you to get from home to your office and Alexa will tell you. This isn’t just an approximation, either, it takes traffic conditions into account. As with distance, you will have to give Alexa to recognizable locations, either an established “home,” or a designated street address.
For example: “Alexa, how long will it take to drive from home to 317 Parker Lane?”
8. Store hours
This can be as simple as a Google search, but you can also just ask Alexa the time that Home Depot, Walmart and other stores open and close. Alexa should know the nearest box stores, but you may have to specify the location of an independent business.
Example: “Alexa, find business hours for Johnson’s Hardware.”
9. Sunrise and sunset
With fireworks displays and movies in the park, it’s nice to know when the sunsets I had of time. You might also want to know when to take that predawn run.
But this is especially useful when you travel, and sunrises and sunsets occur at unfamiliar times. You could say, “Alexa, what is sunset tomorrow in Albuquerque?”
There you are, comfortably tucked into bed, and the light is out. Certainly, you remember: you have to wake up at 5 AM for an early appointment. You’re not sure where your phone is, and you don’t feel like setting the alarm clock across the room.
Example: “Alexa, wake me up at 5 a.m.”
You can also set similar timers for cooking and even name a particular timer.
11. Flatter me
This is a novelty, but it may be Alexa’s most human-like skill. She can help you if you need an emotional pick-me-up. “Alexa, flatter me.”
The Flatter Me skill will search for a new compliment and it may be exactly what you need to hear, such as: “The people you love are lucky to have you in their lives.”
12. Meal ideas
You’re not alone if you’ve run out of ideas for dinner. You’ve cooked the same meals over and over for so many years that your family knows exactly what to expect.
Well, surprise them and yourself. Alexa can give you a recipe based on up to three ingredients that you have in the fridge and pantry. This skill can be activated by saying: “Alexa, open meal idea.”
13. Best recipes
You may also have a meal in mind, but you would like to search specific recipes. If you’re thinking about making lasagna, Alexa will give you a list of ingredients to shop for and then step-by-step instructions.
Since recipes are more straight forward to read than hear, this skill is much easier with the Amazon Show, which can display the recipe on its screen.
14. Wine pairing
Of course, if you’re cooking a nice meal, you’ll want to pair it with wine. None of us really know which wine goes with which food.
Alexa’s Wine Pairing skill can give you a detailed explanation of which wines to choose for the food you’re eating. The skill is called WineSomm (short for “sommelier”), and even if it doesn’t rival an actual wine expert, it might come up with compelling new labels.
Example: “Alexa, recommend a wine to go with Frois Gras.”
15. Bitcoin value
You have likely heard about Bitcoin, the cryptocurrency whose value has soared the past few months. Still, it’s exact worth has fluctuated considerably from day to day, much less than the stock market.
If you’d like to know how much Bitcoin is worth in dollars, ask: “Alexa, what is the value of one Bitcoin today?”
16. Opening bell
Many smart devices are keyed into the stock market, making it easy to check on investments. The skill Opening Bell gives you stock prices for companies that you follow.
Example: “Alexa, ask Opening Bell to give the price of Exxon.” A similar skill is TD Ameritrade, which responds to nearly identical commands.
17. Play Audiobook
One of Amazon’s most infectious subsidiaries is Audible, its audiobook distribution network. When Alexa has access to the Audible app, you can quickly ask to resume a particular title from where you last left off.
Example: “Alexa, play ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.’”
18. Read Kindle Book
This is a more sophisticated skill that enables Alexa to read a Kindle ebook in her own voice. Instead of just playing the pre-recorded version, professionally produced by a publisher, you can listen to the text read aloud. Not everyone will want to hear Alexa read with her robotic inflection, but it can be handy, especially if you’re otherwise occupied. (It’s also a boon for people who are seeing-impaired).
Example: “Alexa, read me my Kindle book.” Then specify which title.
19. Check Notifications
You’ve just stepped out of a bath, and you don’t want to pick up your phone with wet hands. Or your eyes are weary and you just can’t bring yourself to look at another screen. If you’ve connected Alexa to your phone or another device, you can ask her to orate your notifications.
You could say, “Alexa, what are my notifications?” Or you could even say, “Alexa, what did I miss?”
20. Add Events to Calendar
Alexa is best known as a virtual assistant, and in many ways, interacting with Alexa is sort of like having a secretary follow you around your living room, clipboard in hand, awaiting your next appointment. This is helpful if you’re forgetful, or you just have your hands full.
Example: “Alexa, add an event to my calendar.” Later, when you need to check on your daily activities, you can say, “Alexa, what’s on my calendar for tomorrow?”
21. Skill finder
This is only a sampling of the thousands of the 15,000 skills Alexa has at her disposal. It can be helpful, in this sea of options, to ask the source.
Say, “Alexa, new skills” and Alexa will tell you about three new ones.
How to enable Amazon Skills
Did you find an Alexa skill that you like? Here’s how you activate it.
1. Open your Alexa app on your smartphone or tablet, tap the menu icon (the three horizontal lines on the upper left corner) then tap Skills.
2. Here you can browse or search for the skills you may want to use.
3. Tap on the desired skill, then tap “Enable.” That’s it!
Note: Some skills can also be activated via voice command. Simply say “Alexa enable” followed by the skill name and Alexa will enable that skill automatically.
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Learn about all the latest technology on the Kim Komando Show, the nation's largest weekend radio talk show. Kim takes calls and dispenses advice on today's digital lifestyle, from smartphones and tablets to online privacy and data hacks. For her daily tips, free newsletters and more, visit her website at Komando.com.