Educating Alexa

When we invited Alexa into our home, we knew she was young: a techno-toddler, just learning how to make her way around the world -- and our New York City apartment.

We treated her gently, in fact asking very little of her. She turned the radio on and off. Changed the volume. Played some podcasts, nothing extreme.

But now she’s got more “Skills,” and we’re ready to jump into some more smart home devices and behaviors. 

Here are a few excerpts from my Alexa diary. A word of warning: It’s not all pretty.

Day 1:
Let us have light. OK, nothing fancy, just turning some lights on and off. So, with credit card in hand, I’m buying some bulbs, switches, and plugs. IOT, here we come!

Lesson one: Alexa doesn’t talk to devices. Not really. She wants to talk to a hub, and the hub talks to the devices. Ugh. OK, the Hub choices are Samsung SmartThings, Wink Hub, Philips Hue Start Bridge — that’s about it.



Quick bit of research: SmartThings hub has the most third-party options, and it’s reasonably priced for the early adopter set.

So I grabbed a few dimmers, GE Z-Wave Plus Wireless Smart Lighting Control Smart Dimmer, In-Wall. Also those with color bulbs (fancy!) Expower Smart WiFi Light, and  Smart Bulb Dimmable 6.5W RGB Led Bulb, compatible with Alexa Echo. And a smart plug: Gosund Mini Smart Plug Outlet.

First set of painful lessons learned. There’s a bunch of standards — Z-Wave, ZigBee, and others — that need to connect with the SmartThings hub, which needs to connect with Alexa. Ok, this isn’t quite as simple as I was expecting.

First fail: the Expower Smart WiFi Light wants a 2G Wifi network, but my devices are on a 5G network. So that bulb doesn’t work — and never will. Dang, I’m going to have to check what WiFi network all my lights need. I wonder if I go to 6G (or whatever comes next), will I have to replace all my devices? That’s a forbidding look at the future of the connected home.

Second fail is the Gosund Smart Plug. It doesn’t like the SmartThings Hub, even though it says it does. Back it goes.

Day 10:

The SmartThings-enabled dimmers require red, black, and white wires — a neutral, as well as line and load. OK, I kinda know this stuff. Open the wall outlet, take out the old dimmer (with the fuse off) and there’s no neutral wire. Tried hooking up with just black and red  — fail. So, two of the lights I most want Alexa to dim are going to need an electrician, and maybe some serious money. Bummer.

More purchases, to replace the bulbs and switches that didn’t work:
Color bulbs: SYLVANIA SMART+ ZigBee Full Color A19 LED Bulb
Outlet: Samsung F-OUT-US-2 SmartThings Outlet, White Samsung SmartThings

The good news, these work. So, now it’s time to dive into the software.

Day 16: There are “Scenes” in both the Samsung SmartThings hub software and the Alexa Echo software.  They kinda look the same, but that’s part of Educating Alexa.

So, first I teach SmartThings about what “Things” I have. It finds plugs, switches, bulbs. Takes a few tries. Then, I set up Routines. Nothing fancy: Good Morning, Good Night, House Lights On, House Lights Off. By the time I’m done, it’s been two hours.

Then  I ask Alexa to run a routine. Fail. Need to ask Alexa to find new Routines (really?) and then move them from the SmartThings Hub to Alexa. Done. Now the question is, where do I modify or adjust the Routines? Best as I can tell, it’s both places — which is a slog.

Day 20: Software

I’ve kind of given up. Alexa will turn on the radio and turn the lights on and off. But the James Bond vision I had of changing colors subtly, or being able to have Alexa read me the news, or tell me about traffic or the weather — let's just say that’s not happening in this round of Alexa education.

It turns out there’s another layer of software that can create more sophisticated (read “hard-to-implement”) routines. They're called Stringify, Yonomi, and IFTTT (If This, Then That).

I tried Stringify, which even the most friendly tutorial video on YouTube warns is a bit complex at first.

You need to add Things (devices) to a Flow (an action). First I log into the SmartThings account, and I choose the devices I would like to control in the SmartThings Hub. That’s where the fun ends.

Stringify has a snazzy website and promises James-Bond-like home automation. But having to say, “Alexa, ask Stringify to run Good Morning,” is just one digital robot too many for me to keep track of to turn on the lights.

So, where have we ended up?

It’s early days for IOT and smart home automation. But the idea of talking to your home is here to stay. And connecting a hub to Alexa is only going to get easier and cheaper. So, “Alexa — house lights on.”

7 comments about "Educating Alexa".
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  1. Steve Rosenbaum from NYC Media Lab, February 26, 2018 at 8:40 p.m.

    Well Paula - I agree with you that we're allowing computers to do things we used to do ourselves. I can't remember anyone's phone number, they're all stored on my phone. Spelling is now pretty much spell check, and between Google Maps and my iPhone I've lost the ability to navigate with paper maps (though I could probably figure it out in a crisis).  Do I need Alexa, certainly not? But I'm a tech writer, so it's part of my job to try things, use new technology, and explore ideas even when they seem far-fetched. I still have my pair of Google Glass, and that was an idea that worked better in principle than in practice. 

  2. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited replied, February 27, 2018 at 2:32 p.m.

    You may be an exception due to your employment choice. Hoewever,......(please excuse the typeo.s. my delete button stopped working. HELP !)

  3. Ken Kurtz from creative license, February 27, 2018 at 3:29 p.m.

    Years ago, I saw the paradox in the fact that my wife, who suffers frequent bladder infections, would invariably come down with yeast infections while on anti-biotics prescribed to help ameliorate the infected state of her bladder. Anti-biotics diminish the body's natural ability to accomplish oneof the things it was created to do... fight off bacteria. Ditto technology, and its inclination to make human beings dumber, and less capable. Add in the fact that increased usage of anti-biotics is being blamed for the creation of new, super virulent strains of bacteria with exponentially increased resistance levels, and you get a glimpse at the collective dumbing down, let's call it SUPER STUPIDITY that technology is wreaking upon our society, especially our young.

    This piece on Alexa is a good example. Perfectly, and appropriately vapid. Unlearning how to spell, recall numbers, and navigate without a digital device are the least of it, but are certainly emblematic of the disconnect occurring in our society from all the meaningless "connection."

    I do agree, though, I suppose, with the somewhat ludicrous notion that "talking to my home is here to stay." Mainly, I curse my home out because it's such a money pit, constantly in need of repairs. But not technology adds. The light switches still work fine, as do my fingers...

  4. Robin Solis from, February 27, 2018 at 10:48 p.m.

    Idiocracy is alive and growing.

  5. Ken Kurtz from creative license, February 28, 2018 at 5:32 a.m.

    And does anybody else see irony in a society that ignores the voices of hundreds of incredibly strong, and talented girls and women, allowing them to be sexually molested by a monster over the course of decades, while having their lives torn asunder because nobody will pay attention to their cries, and pleas? Or the horrific juxtaposition between fascination with "Alexa", and willful ignorance of the havoc that was being wreaked upon Rachael, Jessica, Chelsea, Aly, Anna, and Helena, et al?

    So many of us are allowing ourselves to be inculcated into listening to, into paying attention to "Alexa" and that is a growing, super-resistant bacteria that technology is creating, and foisting upon us. The horror.

  6. Ken Kurtz from creative license, March 1, 2018 at 11:56 a.m.

    I also see irony in a society that propagates individual isolationism (never a good thing, with zero positive attributes associated with it) via its technology offerings, along with hyper-attention to those offerings. Watching news reports this morning on the "new normal" as the students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas HS report back to school... hugging each other, supporting each other, and loving on each other. I saw three students interviewed, and each spoke of "being one family" and everybody listening to each other, and talking to each other for comfort. Common trauma can have that effect. The sad thing is it took a tragedy like this to get kids to treat each other in this "abnormal" way (abnormal for them, anyway, absent such an event).

    Unfortunately, those same students will have their noses buried in their mobile devices again within a week, or two, and will be bullying, and posting terribly mean things on unsocial media about some of the very same peers they're "hugging" this week in the aftermath of that tragedy.

    If we get real, it's more tragic that people would rather listen to, and speak to "Alexa" than to their peers. That people are less likely to diss "Alexa" than the "different girl" three lockers down. That people would rather make fun of, and bully that girl "three lockers down" than reach out to her because it's so easy to diss her, and make her feel bad while hiding behind their digital devices, and attempting to make themselves feel better.

    The real tragedy is that technology, and its propensity for turning human beings inward, and creating feelings of unfulfillment, very well may be one of the root causes of people slaughtering other people.

    I know. Thoughts like this hurt some peoples' heads. Especially those that are in the business of hawking technology at the expense of human interaction. Easier to blame sick, evil, murderous human beings on the NRA even if it is illogical. Easier to write about, hurts the "believing brain" and the head that holds it in less.

  7. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, March 1, 2018 at 2:50 p.m.

    Please read the next article by Scott Gillum here on MP. 

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