Last week, Amazon announced several new devices that have the Alexa personal assistant embedded, including a microwave oven. I have an Echo in my kitchen that I use to play music, update me on the news, and turn lights on and off — all from across the room. But I can’t imagine why I might need to voice-control the microwave. After all, I’m already there to put the food inside. How much more effort is it to push the “popcorn” or “heat for one minute” button?
Speaking of digital personal assistants, I still remember the first time I saw Siri being used about 8 years ago. I was with a coworker whose girlfriend had the app on her phone. The voice recognition software came from Nuance Communications, and seemed futuristic. Unfortunately, that future hasn’t been kind to Siri because it hasn’t improved, while Amazon’s and Google’s services have surpassed it — and their search engines are so much more powerful. However, a friend just turned me onto another app called Otter, which I’ve been using to record meetings. It doesn’t have the search function, but it’s even faster and more accurate in transcribing voice to text. One of the people I’m working with has a heavy French accent, which makes it harder for Otter to handle, but after a short while, it got even his speech down perfectly.
There’s news this morning that Sirius XM is buying Pandora for $3.5 billion. I’ve never subscribed to satellite radio, mostly because I have a rather large music library on my phone, as well as the free-to-Prime-subscribers Amazon Music service. Besides, in the car, I rarely use the radio any more, preferring to listen to podcasts while I drive. But this corporate takeover makes sense for one simple reason: hardware. As a satellite radio service, SiriusXM has to maintain those orbiting orbs that send the signals down from space to your receiver. Maintaining those — even after launch — must be expensive. On the other hand, Pandora just needs a whole bunch of servers somewhere on Earth. Sure, they need maintenance, too, but not as much as hardware in space! With this move, look for SiriusXM to piggyback and/or switch its specialized content (e.g. Howard Stern and the big sports leagues) to the online stream. That eliminates the need for users to install receivers in their car audio systems, too.
Finally, I saw a report last week about the advances of artificial intelligence in astronomy. It said that researchers at Breakthrough Listen and SETI (Search For Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) have used machine learning to discover 72 new fast radio bursts from a mysterious source some 3 billion light years from Earth. Upon reading that, all I could think of was Jodie Foster in the movie “Contact” saying, “I’m okay to go. I am okay to go.” Then I worried that any other life form in the universe might one day see and hear video images of our current president and conclude that we’re a planet full of morons easily overtaken by anything smarter than a squid.