Thursday, February 16, 2017
My wife purchased an Amazon Echo around Christmas, and let me take
this opportunity to sing praise to the high heavens for the following
mundane use: I can (at last!) get a concise summary of the weather on
a daily basis. Yes, this thing is a technological marvel, and I love
having something so science-fictiony sitting unobtrusively in the
kitchen (where it blends in suspiciously well with our car coffee
mugs), but this has been my most pleasant surprise and favorite
use so far. Here's a slightly edited transcript:
Me: Alexa what's the weather today?Short, sweet, and to the point. But why has this been missing from the web?
Alexa: Currently in Whitetail Woods, it's 28 degrees with intermittent clouds. Today you can look for intermittent clouds with a high of 58 degrees and a low of 21 degrees.
Before I begin, let's consider the obvious benefit of Alexa's weather summary: I can get the weather immediately when I need it -- generally when getting myself and the kids ready for the day -- without having to drop everything to check my computer or phone -- or having some radio station blaring the whole time. That's a big part of it, but the summary is far superior to the barrage of verbiage, images, and advertising (however much decent formatting salvages it) from the web, or even the less-bloated output of my phone's weather app. Indeed, I looked for some time for exactly this kind of summary, in text form, a couple of years ago, in the hopes of automatically dumping it into my daily planner so I could ... just ... know ... what generally to expect. I never found one. Given that this is a popular use of the Echo, it's not as if there was zero demand for something like this.
My best guess as to why the web, for all the information available from it, never delivered something like this comes down to a few things:
- Since it's easy to deliver gobs of information, and there's no telling how much detail what any one visitor might want, weather pages just go ahead and give it. (And one can come up with a general idea by perusing, say, the hourly forecast, but it takes more time.)
- Web pages are delivered "free," but since someone has to pay the bills, they have to include ads. So the "weather page" suffers from having more than one purpose. No man can serve two masters ... (Alexa, though not ad-free, is a subscription service, and needn't and doesn't serve ads for things like this. You'll get an ad only if you bump into something your subscription doesn't cover.)
- Such a summary, while it sounds simple, strikes me as something requiring artificial intelligence. Perhaps it is a happy byproduct of all the other work it took to create the Echo. Note that the web hasn't caused mass unemployment of television and radio weathermen.