Gizmos

Amazon Gave Alexa a Game-Changing New Ability

Now Alexa is fully at your command.

Blueprint illustration of Amazon Echo Dot.
Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo/Slate. Photos by Thinkstock.

Amazon just made a smart play in the virtual assistant war. To complement the wealth of Alexa’s built-in functions and third-party skills made by developers, Echo device owners can now build their own skills. Amazon calls the new capability “Alexa Blueprints.” One of the hallmarks of good personal assistants—and failing points of lesser ones—is their level of personalization and customizability. We use our digital assistants in different ways, and while some features and responses are useful for most, the ability for such an assistant to learn and adapt to the way you do things is paramount for it to be useful in your life. It’s part of why Alexa and Google Assistant seem so much more knowledgeable and helpful than Apple’s Siri. Because these assistants know more about your day, your purchasing habits, and your favorite apps, they end up making better aides. But there’s still room for improvement.

Alexa Blueprints doesn’t fully fill that need, but it does take a big step toward making Amazon’s assistant more useful for you. Alexa Blueprints is a set of 20 skill templates that you can customize for the devices in your home. Many of the templates are purely fun: “Inspirations” lets you populate Alexa with a range of your favorite motivational quotes; “Birthday Trivia” lets you input information about household members, which is then transformed into a quiz game; and “Family Jokes” lets you keep track of favorite jokes and use Alexa to recite them for a good laugh. Some are perfect for kids and students—the ability to create quizzes, flashcards, and aggregate facts on a particular topic. Others are designed for families with small children, so you can use Alexa to tell interactive stories complete with sound effects.

But the last category of Alexa Blueprints—part of the “At Home” section of these skill templates—may prove to be the most important in improving Alexa’s overall utility. In this section, there are four options: Custom Q&A, Houseguest, Pet Sitter, and Babysitter. The last three all follow the same general template. A visitor to your home can say “Alexa, open My Pet Sitter,” for example, and then ask queries relating to the care of your pet—questions and answers that you pre-populated this skill with. You could use this to note where the dog’s leash is kept, what time the parakeet should be fed, or how often the litter box needs to be changed. You can also store emergency contact information within these skills, such as for a vet, doctor, or neighbor. This capability could prove especially useful for Airbnb, hotel, and rental hosts, who could use this personalized skill as a repository for all the information guests need to know about a home, its amenities, and the surrounding neighborhood.

For the Custom Q&A Blueprint, you don’t need to summon a specific skill before asking questions: Whenever you ask Alexa that particular question, she’ll respond with the answer that you provided. (And if the question you ask matches an existing Alexa query, your pre-programmed response will trump Alexa’s previously engineered response.) The examples Amazon provides lean toward the silly side: You could teach Alexa that when you ask “Alexa, who’s the best mom in the world?” she should respond with something like “I just compared all moms in history, and my conclusion is that yours is the best.” But depending on your job, household, and day-to-day needs, this Blueprint could prove extraordinarily useful. You could use it to help you remember information you constantly forget (“Alexa, does Slate use the Oxford comma?” “Yes, of course it does, it’s not a monster.”) or to collect unique, non-Googleable wisdom passed on from friends and family, such as your grandmother’s chocolate chip cookie recipe.

These user-generated Blueprints also have the potential for abuse. Luckily, Amazon does seem to have considered that prospect. When I tried to input a Blueprint with expletives in the response, I got a warning saying that certain adult language is not allowed and was forced to rephrase the answer. That won’t stop all inappropriate, incendiary, or hateful responses from being programmed, however. For that “Who’s the best mom?” question, I was successfully able to make the response “Women are stupid.” (Luckily, you can edit and delete the custom skills you’ve created after the fact.) Where the recent, super creepy issue of Echo devices laughing of their own accord gained nationwide attention, we will no longer be able to trust that any Alexa response recorded and publicly shared is in fact a default response: It could be an Alexa Blueprint, and so could other uploaded “proof” backing up the veracity of that response.

The only other potential downside of this new capability comes from a security perspective. A number of the proposed Blueprints center around family and friend–centric facts and quizzes. Alexa will have these questions and responses stored in the “Skills You’ve Made” section of the Blueprints website. This does leave any information you enter here vulnerable if your Amazon account were to be hacked (i.e., don’t share any information you may use, or already use, as answers to security questions online).

Even so, Alexa’s new custom skills are a turning point in the way we interact with digital assistants. Echo owners now have more control over their personal assistants than has been granted to date. Instead of Alexa being a black box of Amazon-engineered responses, she can answer questions that are uniquely pertinent to you and your family—she can say things that have personal meaning to you, and that can help make your day smoother or more enjoyable. Instead of relying on artificial intelligence to do the heavy lifting, Amazon put some of the control back into the user’s hands, and it’s a smart move.