Amazon’s Alexa, the artificially intelligent voice assistant with thousands of apps and skills, cannot do everything. It is not particularly good at understanding natural language — that is to say, commands that are not precise or specific. And until now, it has not been able to store reminders or label countdown timers. But in an update on Thursday, Alexa is getting better.
Alexa will now remind you of tasks at the time you specify. Saying, “Alexa, remind me to take out the trash at 6 p.m.” will schedule an alert for later in the day. Alternatively, you can set a reminder for a particular day (“Alexa, remind me to by toilet paper on June 15”) or day of the week (“Alexa, remind me to buy a Father’s Day gift on Friday”) — the choice is up to you.
Alexa’s reminders are not perfect. As The Verge points out, there is no context for a.m./p.m. reminders, so you have to include the abbreviation. Unlike Google’s Assistant, you can’t set a recurring reminder or specify a location in lieu of a time — Alexa does not understand commands like, “Remind me to buy groceries when I get home.” And reminders are not synced across Alexa-enabled devices — you will not hear a reminder set on one of Amazon’s Echo speakers come from another Echo speaker and there is no way to sync reminders with third-party services like Evernote and Todoist.
But otherwise, the reminder functionality’s roughly on par with competition like Apple’s Siri.
There is an easier way to distinguish between multiple timers now, too: Names. After the update hits your Echo, you will be able to say, “Alexa, set a chicken breast timer for 30 minutes” and, “Alexa, set a baked potato timer. The next time you ask, “Alexa, how much time is left on the chicken breast timer,” or cancel a timer by name (“Alexa, cancel the chicken breast timer,”) you will get the result you want.
The new reminder and timer features come after the announcement of iCloud support in Alexa — its first integration with an Apple service — and Alexa Calling, which lets you call and message any Alexa user in your phone’s contact list.
And it follows on the heels of new developer-centric improvements like Speech Synthesis Markup Language (SSML) tags that let app creators control Alexa’s intonations — including whispers, expletive bleeps, and emphasis — a bit better than before.
There is a good reason for all the improvements — Apple is expected to announce a Siri-powered smart speaker at its Worldwide Developers Conference next week. Amazon, no doubt, wants to make sure its upcoming Echo Show measures up to the competition.
The new reminder and timer features are rolling out to users in the U.K. and Germany this month.
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