If you ask Alexa, “Hey Alexa, play “My Shot” from Hamilton?” what do you think you’ll hear? “My Shot” from Hamilton?
Good guess, but no. Instead, the voice-activated device will explain to you what the song is, who its by, what streaming service you’re playing it on, and where it comes from. “Playing ‘My Shot’ by Lin-Manuel Miranda,” Alexa drones. “Anthony Ramos, Daveed Diggs, Okieriete Onaodowan, Leslie Odom Jr., and the Original Broadway Cast of Hamilton from Spotify on Echo Dot.”
Alexa does this for all songs and podcasts. “Playing ‘Work’ by Rihanna from Spotify on Echo Dot.” “Getting the latest episode of ‘Up First.’ Here it is from TuneIn.” There’s no way to turn this feature off, and this has been a known issue with songs beyond the realm of Hamilton (I’ve heard asking her to play ‘Piano Concerto Number 2 by Rachmaninoff’ is particularly unpleasant) for years. Google Home does this too: “‘My Shot by Anthony Ramos, Daveed Diggs, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Leslie Odom Jr., Okieriete Onaodowan, playing on Spotify,” “Playing the latest episode from Planet Money #819: Tax Me If You Can.”
Why do voice assistants need to talk so much? If you’ve ever used one of Amazon’s ridiculous, yet rather addictive (I have two) Echo products, you know what I’m talking about: Whether you’re setting a timer, or asking her to play a podcast, Alexa just won’t shut the fuck up. Even when you give it a relatively simple command (like, “Alexa, set an alarm for 6 a.m.,” or “Alexa, set timer for five minutes”) it always responds with either a partial or total repetition of your phrase (“Okay, alarm set for 6 a.m. tomorrow,” or “Timer set for five minutes”), which can be more than a little annoying when it’s two in the morning and you don’t exactly want a booming robot voice waking your roommates up a wall over.
That there isn’t an option to turn off these more long-winded responses seems like a missed opportunity, especially as tech giants push consumers to adopt voice-assisted devices. All of Amazon’s Echo products have a light ring, which is primarily used to show new notifications and tell you whether Alexa has heard your command, but this system could easily be used as an optional replacement to Alexa’s more lengthy responses (green for yes/done, red for not understood/no action taken). This doesn’t have to be the standard response — as some people probably wouldn’t like it, and getting rid of the audio announcement completely would put people with visual impairments at a disadvantage — but it should at least be an optional alternative.
It’s the Year of Our Lord 2018 and I’m talking to a robot that understands me pretty much 100 percent of the time. I shouldn’t have to deal with the robot talking back to me too.