What will it look like when computers fade into the background? Farhad Manjoo of the New York Times describes Amazon’s vision–and the future is already here. It comes in the form of Amazon Echo. As an appliance, it is a hands-free speaker that is controllable by voice commands. Echo and other Alexa devices enable you to listen to music, control your smart home, and retrieve information. It’s a powerful tool with far-reaching potential.

Echo doesn’t need to be opened or need to be moved around the house to be used. It is there to serve you when you need it, and with seven microphones it can also receive commands while music is playing. Dave Limp, Amazon’s senior vice president for devices, noted:

“It’s a very different mental model than the traditional computer, smartphone or tablet, where you have to think of which app you want to use and then open it and then dive in.”

— Dave Limp, Amazon’s senior vice president for devices

Generally, it is important to know that speakers can not only produce sound, but also receive information and with the aid of a computer, then process it. I believe the real power with this device is in being able to absorb all of the data that is being created in the environment in which it sits, and to then anticipate what it’s users need next. As an ambient device, Echo could take in information about other devices and get them to work better together. It could sense our health, find missing objects, or remind our children to finish their homework before they go out to play.

When the device becomes deeply rooted within the context in which it resides, it can figure out what we need before we need it by observing, listening to, or simply recording our patterns of behavior. This level of responsiveness may seem otherworldly and strange at times, but this is the power that exists with the computing power that is now available.

“But however minimal, however threadbare, it (collective memory) is ballast of a kind. We all need that seven-eighths of the iceberg, the ballast of the past, a general past, the place from which we came. That is why history should be taught in school. to all children, as much of it as possible. If you have no sense of the past, no access to historical narrative, you are afloat, untethered; you cannot see yourself as a part of the narrative, you cannot place yourself within a context. You will not have an understanding of time, and a respect for memory and its subtle victory over the remorselessness of time”

— Penelope Lively

Can the Echo, and devices like it, help us navigate the context in which we live?

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