Archive for March, 2018

Joining Amazon to Talk to Some Robots

Alexa holding note that says "I hear you"

On Monday, I’m joining Amazon to work on the experience of Alexa within households.

I’ll be based in Lab126, Amazon’s hardware and R&D base in Sunnyvale, California.

The interaction between humans and technology has always been my core interest, and what that interaction looks like has changed fundamentally in the last few decades. A person using a machine used to be an interaction between two entities: 1. the person 2. the machine she is yelling at. If there were others involved, they were in the world: the coworkers, the system, the factory.

Technology itself is now collaborative, and every person’s use case more tailored to them: my music, my friends, my content. For a household, and even moreso a family, people bring their unique interests but share devices, technology, noise, plans, and daily life.

For a family, technology both isolates and connects. On the isolation end, every family member can have their own tailored experience that they don’t have to share. If you remember flights when a single movie was shown to every passenger, you’re grimacing right now.  Untailored, broad experiences leave nearly everyone unsatisfied.

On the connection end, technology can serve the family’s collective needs by coordinating schedules, providing the right information at the right times, creating opportunities for fun together, and largely getting out of the way. The balance of technology between isolation and connection is a deeply interesting to me.

Having worked at Google for the last few years, I brought a Google Home into our living room before the birth of my daughter. I was initially skeptical of its benefits. However, I found I kept asking Home for things: weather, podcasts, lullabies. Caring for a baby, my hands were usually full and moving. During a diaper change, the difficulty of four taps on a smartphone mirrors that of launching a car into space.

Now my baby is a toddler, and she is starting to have her own desires. She wants to listen to this and watch that. She can’t yet use technology, so I’m the middleman for her access to content. That will change. She’ll grow up with smart assistants, and she’ll learn that they serve her, too. The battle over the remote becomes the battle over the smart assistant. Rather than a surveillance system, kids need the independence to learn, experiment, test boundaries, and screw up. What does that look like with smart assistants? Who does Alexa serve? Will Alexa keep my daughter’s secrets? Will she keep mine? How will she handle negotiations over music, temperature, food, and information? She can’t easily live with us and stay neutral.

These questions surrounding smart assistants meaningfully shift family dynamics. Right now, I’m embracing my ignorance on families. Each family and culture has different expectations regarding technology’s role in the home. Luckily for me, Amazon has fantastic researchers, and I plan to annoy the hell out of them.