Amazon’s Alexa can now listen and respond to whispers, but will she whisper back?
Amazon has finally unveiled a feature that its Alexa/Echo virtual assistant has needed for a long, long time: the ability to respond to a whisper. Unfortunately, the programmers forgot to give Alexa a crucial feature in return, which is the ability to shut her trap and whisper instead of screaming her response at whatever volume you left it on.
Seriously, go try it. Go whisper to your Echo and listen to that robotic voice shout back at you like your eighty-year-old father-in-law intoning, “Ehhh? What did you say?” even though you discreetly whispered that there was toilet paper on his shoe.
First, this might set off another wave of anxiety for privacy advocates. Your virtual assistant is not only spying on you and potentially recording or storing your conversations, now she can do even if you tried to keep your voice down. Amazon’s team just made that sensitive microphone function even more acutely.
But does this new feature actually solve any known problem?
Not really. If you whisper, “Echo, play a lullaby,” for the infant who’s almost asleep in your arms, Echo will respond, “Here’s a station for lullabies from your Amazon Music library,” at full startling volume.
There are some features that don’t require a response from the Echo. If you’ve enabled IFTTT protocols with your Alexa and your connected smartplugs, for example, you could stealthily turn on a light downstairs if an intruder breaks in during the night; not all of the components require Alexa to respond. However, on the off-chance your outlet isn’t connected at the moment, Alexa will shout, “Hmmm, sorry. I was unable to connect to your outlet. Check the Help settings in your Alexa app for assistance.” Again, this announcement that someone has triggered the assistant will happen at full volume, possibly alerting the intruder that you’re home and scared.
What do we really need from Alexa?
What would truly be a great innovation is if Alexa could “learn” to respond in kind. If you shout, the music for your backyard barbecue plays loudly. If you whisper, her response is muted. If you’re quiet enough, she doesn’t open her mouth at all and simply does what you’ve requested. That would be quite a help for devotees of the device.
To add insult to very loud injury, Alexa actually can whisper. (Again, go try it.) She just can’t use that function for anything other than cracking a joke about nap time.