Amazon Echo

“Alexa, can you…?”

Amazon’s Echo/Echo Dot was the hottest gift this holiday season. Amazon refused to disclose the actual number sold but indicated it was in the millions and approximately nine times greater than last holiday season. Indeed, even our family now has “Alexa” in our kitchen.

Alexa has been a hit. In our house, my wife & I use it to track items to buy at the grocery store (conventional grocery lists have never worked very well for us) and our kids use it for a number of smaller tasks, including getting the weather forecast and asking for jokes (“Why should you go on a cheese diet? If you need to cheddar a few pounds!”). People are using Alexa for all sorts of clever uses, including some examples where Alexa has been instrumental in positively impacting their well-being.

Technology Delivering on Some of its Promises, Particularly Artificial Intelligence

Alexa and its integrated capabilities with smart appliances using voice was a highlight earlier this month at the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. CES is notorious for showcasing some early stage products that receive buzz but are ultimately duds: the Microsoft SPOT Watch, Netbooks and Google Glass. However, something very significant is happening in the area of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and deep learning, the key drivers behind Alexa. As The Economist outlines in its recent survey, AI, while victim to many false starts, is now gaining momentum with significant venture capital investment and is embedded in many of the recent technology advances from Alexa to autonomous vehicles to IBM’s Watson.

Technology’s Impact on Our Living Environments 

Following suit, Vivek Wadwa, a leading futurist in Silicon Valley, has declared 2017 the year of the bot (Alexa is an example of a bot), in a recent Washington Post article.  I heard Vivek speak last spring at the National Multifamily Housing Council’s Leadership Conference. He highlighted the impact of rapidly changing technologies and how our living environments will need to accommodate these advances to improve people’s quality of life. Examples include the need for physical spaces to support increased volume of deliveries (including via drones!), internet infrastructure to support high definition video, including as it relates to supporting telehealth, and the ability to coordinate on-demand services.

The Smart Living 360 Approach

Technology is a key element in the approach for Smart Living 360 communities. We include advanced equipment in our fitness centers, design spaces for telehealth capabilities and offer residents the ability to customize technology options, such as smart thermostats and smart entertainment systems. A critical design element is to create flexibility for new technologies as they emerge and to make them easy for people to use in an integrated way. We have found that technology advances can be as overwhelming as they can be helpful and helping people understand what’s most useful and how to use them can be very valuable. Our Lifestyle Ambassador takes the lead on this effort.

However, as important as technology is and the inevitably greater role it will have in our lives and managing our health, we see technology as taking a back seat to the critical importance of face-to-face connection, a subject of a 2016 blog.

There is a Limit to this Alexa

While Vivek Wadwa points out the benefits of these emerging technologies, he is also quick to point out the ethical and health challenges that many of these advances introduce. Much of our society struggles with social isolation and depression and we mustn’t let these digital friends take the place of real friends. According to a recent report in New Scientist, hundreds of thousands of people say ‘Good morning’ to Alexa every day, half a million people have professed their love for it and more than a quarter of a million have proposed marriage to it.

Embracing the benefits of technology while creating boundaries for its use will continue to be a key challenge of our age.  Fortunately, healthy living environments can help us strike the proper balance.