I was promised a lot of things when I was a kid back in the 60s. I was told that I would have my own personal robot to serve me lunch. I was, they told me, going to be able to take a vacation on the moon or maybe even Mars. I was told I would have my very own flying car. I was told I would be able to fly from Chicago to Sydney Australia in an hour. I was told I’d have a talking computer that would understand human speech.
Only one of those things actually came true in my lifetime, the talking/listening computer that is generically called a “personal home assistant”, or specifically the Amazon Echo (often called Alexa after its wake word) and Google’s Assistant (sometimes referred to as Nest). I’m going to focus on the Echo because that’s the one I’m most familiar with.
These things are everywhere. Amazon has sold somewhere around 200+ million of these things. I think they sold about 70 million of them last year alone, and if sales trends continue it’s predicted the company will sell 130 million of them in 2025 alone. I know a lot of people don’t like them and are even suspicious of them. I mean we live in a world now where some poor woman ended up finding a photograph of herself sitting on a toilet that was taken by her vacuum cleaner ending up on the internet. But the fact remains that there are millions of these things out there and millions of people love them and even have come to depend on them for important reasons.
But there is a huge problem with the Echo and the others out there, and that is cost. Amazon sells these things at cost to keep the price down, and they are losing an absolute fortune. The company is losing billions of dollars on the Echo devices. The problem is that they require a massive and extremely expensive behind the scenes infrastructure to work. The devices themselves are, frankly, stupid. What makes them work are massive server farms, huge buildings packed with computers that do the actual work associated with operating these things. And Amazon hasn’t come up with a way to pay for any of it.
When the Echo program was conceived of, it was going to be a marketing tool. The Echo was going to be an advertising device and ordering system. It would remind you to buy coffee or dish soap or laundry detergent and you’d use the Echo to order more and things like that. Only it didn’t work out that way. In order to get people to accept these things into their homes Amazon had to make the a hell of a lot more useful than that. And they did too good of a job of it. They’re used as personal calendars, reminder devices, communications devices, entertainment devices, give reminders to take medication, play cooking videos, play fart noises, tell bad jokes.
And Amazon makes pretty much nothing off any of that.
Amazon makes huge amounts of money, true, but not even that company can afford to keep this going when it is losing literally billions of dollars on the project. The company has been laying off people working on the Echo devices and trying other cost cutting measures, but it’s losing billions and none of that is going to solve that problem.
I suspect Amazon would dearly love to shut down the whole program, but that would be a PR disaster. Despite the fact that a lot of people look at the devices with suspicion, a lot of people love the things, use them every day, and often use them in ways that help improve their health and safety. If Amazon were to just shut the whole thing down it would anger millions of people.
So what is the solution? Hey, don’t look at me.