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Green Building News

Amazon’s Echo: Always Listening, to Everything

A broadcast about the cloud-connected device has some unexpected consequences

The Amazon Echo can take a variety of instructions from homeowners and, it appears, is equally willing to field requests from radio and television broadcasts.
Image Credit: Rick Turoczy / CC BY-SA 4.0 / Flickr

The Amazon Echo is an internet-connected device introduced by the online retailer in 2014 that lets homeowners play music, call up traffic reports, and activate lighting and heat controls — all by voice command.

It turns out that the Echo, through its Alexa personal, listens not only to whoever is at home, but occasionally responds to what it hears over the radio or on TV.

National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition aired a story earlier this month on its Listen Up segment about the $180 device and how it allowed owners to control a number of devices. But some listeners who already owned Echos and had them placed within earshot of the program reported unintended results, the website Quartz reported.

Listener Roy Hagar told host Rachel Martin in a followup story that during the original broadcast Alexa reset the thermostat in his house. Another listener, Jeff Finan, said that as soon as Alexa heard its name over the radio during the segment, it began playing an NPR news summary.

In fact, Quartz reported, the Echo can be activated by television commercials. “Now that there are Amazon Echo commercials on TV, they accidentally activate my mom’s Echo all the time,” Dan Wells said in a Tweet. “That’s a great story prompt.”

In December, Echo’s customer support staff admitted that the device had the “annoying habit” of playing Christmas music at the request of a commercial and said it was working to head off the problem. “Mine has gone off several times to this and we have brought it up to our developers,” a support staffer named Brandon said in another Tweet.

Amazon lists the device as a best seller in its lineup of home audio speakers. (Apparently it is so popular that it will be out of stock until March 29).

The web site advertises that the Echo can play music from a customer’s Spotify, Pandora, or other account, read audio books, give traffic and weather updates, fetch sports scores, and control lights, switches, and thermostats.

Amazon has since added two new models, the $130 Tap and the $90 Echo Tap.

6 Comments

  1. Apollo S | | #1

    Slow news day
    1. What does this have to do anything with building science and this site?

    2. So we are going to see more of these regurgitations of posts from other sites on populists topics? Youtube has "reaction" videos to troll for more ad clicks. Is that the direction this great site is going?

  2. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #2

    Response to Apollo S
    Apollo,
    Thanks for your feedback. We keep reader feedback in mind as we choose topics for news stories and articles, so feedback is always welcome.

    This news story may be of interest to a subset of GBA readers -- those who follow developments in smart thermostats, home automation, and the "internet of things." I certainly understand that a different subset of GBA readers is not interested in the topic.

  3. Charlie Sullivan | | #3

    science fiction plot
    Count me among the readers who were amused.

    For example, imagine the potential science fiction plots: evil mad genius hacks into the NPR datastream during Car Talk and broadcasts a request to Alexa to make hundreds of thousands of appliances cycle on and off together, inducing an oscillation on the power grid and blowing it up. Then imagine that science fiction movie airing during prime time (if that concept still exists).

    I'm also wondering when Echo subscribers will be able to purchase a GBA option and ask questions like "Martina, will I have a moisture problem in my wall with 1.5 inches of polyiso on the exterior in zone 6?"

  4. Apollo S | | #4

    No need for more noise
    Martin,
    I am in automation business at the hardware and software level, so I follow this stuff. There are tons of articles every day about this stuff in media outlets more fitting for such topics. Plenty of information and misinformation. If you are into the tech, why would you get regurgitated info here with the additional layer of opinion injected.

    I think there are more than enough building science subjects to cover and this is what this site is known for, specializes is, and has loyal following. Moment you start diluting value with something we are overloaded with from other sources already, you are increasing the noise and killing the value of this very informative site.

  5. David McNeely | | #5

    Phantom Load?
    It would be interesting and appropriate on this site to learn about the phantom energy load that Echo requires to be so attentive and responsive.

  6. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #6

    Response to David McNeely
    David,
    The Amazon Echo is powered by a wall cube (photo below). Amazon's published literature doesn't provide power draw information, unfortunately. I found a discussion of power usage on a web forum, and Amazon engineers seem to be reporting power use in the range of 3 watts to 8 watts. The information isn't perfectly satisfying, however, because they don't really report standby power use.

    I found the information at this site. Here it is:

    "This is Carson from Amazon and Echo. I've forwarded your question to our developers team and got the following reply:

    "Measured consumption for a pop playlist at volume 8 is an average of 6 watts from the wall, closer to 7 or 8 watts cranking everything up to the limit. Quoting a previous email:

    "'Prime pop playlist ("Pop to Make You Feel Better"), volume 5 output: 2.9 watts into device (DC input) (confirmed with 2 30-minute recordings) Est. 3.5 watts into wall wart (based on AP5 spec of min 83% efficiency). Active dialog looks like ~3 watts in on DC (more than pop at volume 5) --> the LEDs take a lot of power ;) --> under 4 watts into the AC adapter on the other hand, most dialogs very short, other than daily briefing. Taking another measurement for pop music at volume 8: This is a more foreground music level than background Again, playing "pop from prime music", returning a pop playlist DC: RMS of 4.8 watts estimate: 5.8 watts at the AC input.'"

    .

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