This ‘Alexa For Seniors’ thing is just what I’ve been looking for!

Who wouldn’t want to have a friendly, helpful “robot” assistant who listens to (and obeys) your every word? Sounds like science fiction, but it’s not. Learn more. Read on.

Inspired by the talking computers from the original 1960s “Star Trek” series, the wizards at tech giant Amazon asked themselves if they could turn science fiction into reality. And so they set to work on “Alexa,” a virtual voice-activated personal assistant.

Incredibly, Alexa can make sense of ordinary speech — it’s just like talking to a real person! There are no buttons to press or programs to learn: whenever you say, “Alexa!” followed by a question or command, she finds the answer or does what you asked. You can have her look up information on the internet, go shopping for you, or even order dinner. She’s an amazing testament to the strides that have been made in the field of artificial intelligence in recent years. You might say that computers have actually begun to “think” — gone are the days when they were nothing more than glorified typewriters!

To bring Alexa into your home, you’ll need a reasonably fast internet connection — this isn’t a job for dial-up — and one of Amazon’s purpose-built devices. The most common is the Amazon Echo, which is about the size and shape of a can of tennis balls.

A miracle of modern technology

Despite all the time and effort Amazon’s engineers put into making Alexa and the Echo user-friendly, there was one demographic that struggled with the technology: senior citizens. In response to everything it was hearing from users, the company decided to host an extensive series of focus groups. They invited 15,000 people over the age of 75 to take part: some of them were frustrated Alexa users while others were potential customers who were curious about the new technology but had trepidations. Thousands answered the call and descended on the company’s Sarasota, Florida offices. As one invitee said, “It was like Coxey’s Army!”

The Echo Silver: a solution for seniors

Amazon took that mountain of focus group data and in partnership with a “brains trust” from the AARP, created a version of Alexa tailor-made for seniors. The engineers working on the project (code named GREEN STAMP) also designed a new piece of hardware to go with it: the Amazon Echo Silver. Jeff Bezos, the company’s founder and president, was at the Consumer Electronics Showcase conference in Las Vegas to personally unveil the new product: “Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce the Amazon Echo Silver, the world’s first and only smart speaker system designed for the Greatest Generation.”

The grandkids will be jealous

The Echo Silver is about the size and shape of a regular Echo but instead of the standard sleek black plastic case, this version is housed in wood with burlap covering the speaker. This gives a nod to the classic look and solid feel of a vintage radio set. You can almost imagine one of President Roosevelt’s fireside chats or Edward R. Murrow’s reports from wartime London come crackling out of it. And, actually, if you ask Alexa, well, you can!

For a high-tech device, the Echo Silver is remarkably easy to operate: Once plugged in, it’s always on: there are no buttons whatsoever to fumble with. And speaking of plugging it in, the standard-issue plug is a NEMA-1 type A, unpolarized. In English: just plug it in. That’s it!

Older ears have heard a lot and that takes its toll. Anyone who spent much time in a Sherman tank or on a noisy factory floor could tell you that! The Echo Silver not only has louder default volume settings, but Alexa is able to dynamically adjust the volume for each user’s needs. If you’re asking her to repeat herself a lot, she’ll notice and turn it up a notch. If you seldom need something repeated, she’ll realize she’s too loud and nudge the volume down.

Alexa for the Echo Silver has some amazing logical capabilities. During development, a beta tester asked Alexa about the weather and after she told him, he asked, “Where?” Alexa responded tartly, “Outside!” This might sound like small beer, but it was a triumph for artificial intelligence and even got written up in a number of major technical journals. Any sly user who tries to flummox Alexa with an Abbott and Costello routine will be disappointed.

How many times have you had to tell someone, “You know what I meant to say.”? We all do it. Alexa for the Echo Silver not only answers to variations on her name (Alexander, Alexandra, Alberta, etc.) but will adapt to your own unique pattern. With a little experience, she comes to know what you meant to say! This aspect of Alexa’s technology still has its limits, but Amazon is optimistic. One developer, speaking off-the-record, told us, “Next year’s upgrade is going to be the bee’s knees. If someone says, ‘Boston Braves,’ Alexa will know they really meant Atlanta.”

As an active senior (I’m 72 years young), I’ve got a lot on my mind. I’ve seen a lot and learned a lot over the years and I’m sure you have, too — your brain is a vast treasure trove of wisdom and memories. Sometimes all those big thoughts crowd out the small stuff and that’s why you sometimes forget where you left something (keys, phone, medicine, and so forth). This is where the Echo Silver’s “quick scan technology” comes in handy. It’s a small but highly sophisticated radar system that can identify and locate commonly needed objects. Once Alexa has made a mental map of your house, she’ll be able to tell you the remote is under the TV Guide or that your keys are in your jacket pocket. Little conveniences make life a lot less aggravating.

Amazon Echo Silver is smart

The Amazon Echo Silver has some nice touches. Here are just two examples of features Amazon could easily have skipped but knew would help make their product a joy to use.

One of the best is the “attentiveness signal.” Often, asking Alexa for something is quick and simple. But there are times when what you need to say is a bit involved and requires some explaining. When you ask a person a question like that, the last thing you want to hear when you’re done is, “Huh, oh, what did you want?” Alexa for the Echo Silver has a way of letting you know she’s all-ears: the attentiveness signal. It kicks in when you’ve been speaking for more than 20 seconds. From that point, Alexa will say, “Uh huh,” to make it clear she’s still listening. She does that every 5 to 15 seconds and varies the interval at random to create a more human-like effect.

Another really nice touch that Amazon has given the Echo Silver is its awareness of senior citizen cultural preferences. Music is where Alexa really shines: you can ask her to play a specific tune or you can just say, “Alexa! Put on a record!” and let her choose the album. Whatever she selects is guaranteed to be classy: big band, doo-wop, swing, maybe Frank Sinatra or Bing Crosby.

See “Alexa For Seniors” in action

But perhaps the most incredible thing about the Echo Silver is the low price. Amazon obviously understands that most senior citizens live on a fixed income. So the company kept costs down and as a result, this bundle of technological marvels has a price tag of only $40. It can also be purchased in five easy installments of $9.99 per month. With its eye for customer convenience, Amazon gladly accepts payment by check or money order. 😉

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