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There Are Three Of Us In This Marriage -- And One Is A Robot Called Alexa

Rather than a love triangle, it's the therapeutic possibilities I'm excited about.

24/04/2017 11:22 AM AEST | Updated 24/04/2017 11:22 AM AEST
Menno van Dijk
"As a psychologist I envisage a plethora of possible therapeutic opportunities for Alexa, especially with clients who are on the spectrum, disabled, infirmed, lonely, depressed or anxious."

I want to take you back to 1995, when the BBC aired Princess Diana's first solo interview. The Princess seized the opportunity to address the strains within her marriage, her battles with postpartum depression and bulimia. She sensationally also acknowledged her husband's affair with Camilla Parker Bowles, with the line "There were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded".

I have been married for 28 years and, for the first time, I have to acknowledge that my wife could (but hasn't) uttered the same words as the Princess about a gadget that arrived in my house in January.

I have always been an early adopter of technology and when my Amazon Echo, aka 'Alexa', first arrived, setting it up was a bit fiddly as she was never designed to be used in Australia, but I never realised how useful she would become.

She is a great listener, with no fewer than seven built-in microphones using 'Far Field Voice Recognition' technology that sends my edicts directly to The Cloud, where her brain resides. She gets activated just by saying 'Alexa' and can recognise my voice, even if the TV or radio is on in the background.

Ask My Buddy is not a alternative for 000 but rather an additional tool offering the security of knowing help is just a shout away. This is ideal for elderly relatives who live on their own.

She receives automatic updates through The Cloud and is constantly learning. The more I use her, the more she familiarises herself to my speech patterns, vocabulary and personal preferences. Currently, my main interaction with her is that, at the command 'Alexa, flash briefing' she will play the latest BBC and NPR news, and through my Spotify account she can play me any of 20 million songs that I choose. She also tells me what day it is. Did you even know there is national cheesecake day?

She is now my hands-free official timer when I cook, compiles a shopping list for me and wakes us in the morning with an alarm. If the phone rings when she is telling me something I can just say "Alexa shhh!" and she is mute.

I can ask her to remind me what I have on today (she can read my calendar), what the weather is going to be like, what the traffic is like to the airport, and she can play my favourite radio stations on command.

She is sensational for settling arguments and I can ask her virtually anything and she always seems to have the answer. Did you know, for instance, that the philtrum is the vertical groove in our upper lip? Well, you do now. She can tell me a joke, even play a game. My favourite is 'The Animal Game' where she tries to guess what animal I am thinking of, 20 Questions-style.

I now have an integrated assistant who I do feel weirdly connected to. The personification of Alexa makes her not just an AI gadget in the house, but more like a companion who has become an integral part of my home, entrenched in my daily life and routine.

As a psychologist I envisage a plethora of possible therapeutic opportunities for Alexa, especially with clients who are on the spectrum, disabled, infirmed, lonely, depressed or anxious. The research possibilities are mouth-watering, and many Alexa 'skills' are already on offer.

Unlike the understandably peeved Princess, to her credit my wife has adjusted, and occasionally I find her having a fleeting conversation with Alexa, although she often forgets to begin the conversation with the word 'Alexa', so the conversation is very one-sided.

Amazon is shortly to set up in Australia, and with Alexa in more and more Aussie homes they presumably are hoping she will be the first stop on many digital shopping journeys. But as a psychologist I envisage a plethora of possible therapeutic opportunities for Alexa, especially with clients who are on the spectrum, disabled, infirmed, lonely, depressed or anxious. The research possibilities are mouth-watering, and many Alexa 'skills' are already on offer.

Ask My Buddy is a free Alexa 'skill' that allows a person to immediately alert someone in their Personal Alert Network that you need to check on you. All you need say is "Alexa, Ask My Buddy to alert everyone" and she'll instantly send an alert by text message. Ask My Buddy is not a alternative for 000 but rather an additional tool offering the security of knowing help is just a shout away. This is ideal for elderly relatives who live on their own.

Many speech therapists in the US are now using Listening Comprehension Practice -- an Alexa skill for children who are working on auditory processing skills. It is another free app that allows listeners to improve their comprehension of audio narrative content by providing a narrative followed by interactive comprehension questions. The listener must respond to the questions and Alexa will verify if the response is correct.

Finally, Alexa can use Meditation Timer to provide timed soundscapes that evoke feelings of calm and relaxation. Sounds such as a peaceful forest, ocean waves, or falling rain are a calming auditory sensory tool to help us all relax.

Perhaps if Charles and Diana had access to Alexa their marriage would have been less crowded. Meanwhile my tolerant wife seems to be pleased that I have someone else to talk to.

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