Want to Own a Digital Butler?

Now you can read us on your iPhone and iPad! Check out the BTRtoday app.

Every so often a technology comes along that completely embodies the computer age in which we live. Like the black obelisk out of “2001: A Space Odyssey,” sometimes it arrives in the form of a simple shape. It can be so new and unique that it becomes hard to describe by comparison, simply because there hasn’t been anything on the market like it before.

Look no further than Amazon’s newest creation, which can best be understood as both a hybrid speaker and personal assistant.

The Amazon Echo looks like a cylindrical-shaped speaker, stands about nine inches tall, and is designed to be used in a home environment. Its simple form is deceptive, however; the Echo is capable of a huge assortment of helpful functions that essentially equate it to a digital butler for your house.

Asking what Amazon Echo can do is like asking what an iPhone can do. The product serves as a remote control, as a hub for entertainment, and for myriad other purposes. In the official Amazon video about the device, the Echo itself says that it, “can play music, answer questions, get the news and weather, create to-do lists, and much more.”

The closest comparison to Amazon’s Echo is Siri, the AI found on most Apple phones. Like Siri, Amazon Echo has its own feminine digital personality named Alexa. Alexa boasts over a thousand “skills” (skills being Alexa’s equivalent to apps). You can shop with Alexa–using Amazon, of course. If you have the correct setup, you can even connect the Echo to other devices in your home, the most impressive being a house’s lighting network and temperature control.

Because Alexa is a program that listens to your voice, it learns and stores information in a cloud–an external database that syncs with other devices. This does raise some privacy concerns, one being the capability for outsiders to potentially gain access to the data that Echo has collected. Amazon has assured the public that the Echo only listens to you when you talk to it, and that you can always mute device with the push of a button.

While Amazon seeks to corner the market with the Echo, Google is firing back soon with its own digital assistant. Dubbed “Chirp,” it’s Google’s answer to a market that is just being discovered, and may soon provide competition to Amazon’s own brainchild. Like the Echo, Google’s digital assistant will work with voice recognition and replicate many of the functions of Amazon’s product. It is expected to be released sometime in 2016, but the project is still under wraps.

For now, Amazon is the only company with this remarkable kind of product. Retailing for around $180 on Amazon.com, it’s the latest step in technological assistance, which will surely continue to grow.