Editor's Note (July 2019): Doctor Alexa

The smart-ass robots in our homes

IT’S 6:30 A.M.,  and I can hear birds chirping. Bluebirds, maybe? A family of yellow warblers? I turn in bed toward the crescendo of calls, and a beam of light hits my eyelids. Ah, the sun feels nice, I think, but why are these birds getting louder? I pull the edges of my pillow around my ears as if feather-downs have ever been effective noise-canceling headphones.

Eventually, I squint and look around. In a room that’s otherwise dark, a globe of light sits on my nightstand, caw-cawing. 

I recently moved to a railroad-style apartment in Optimist Park. It has slate gray cinder block walls and exposed air ducts, so I feel pretty cool, OK? But with the layout—only the living room end of the linear flat has windows—my bedroom is a cave.

I hate to wake up without natural light, so to avoid snoozing through my alarm for a full hour, I installed an alarm clock that mimics the sun and chirps instead of clangs or beeps. But in my sleepy stupor, I forget. The illusion of waking in a fairy forest—albeit one with really loud birds—gone, I get out of bed.

“Alexa!” I holler. “What’s today?” Followed by, “What’s the weather like?”

“This day is Wednesday, May 15, 2019 … In Charlotte, it is 54 degrees. Today, you can look for sun with a high of 72 degrees and a low of 45 degrees.”

My iPhone vibrates and updates me on the light rail schedule—if I want to get to my office by 8 a.m., when do I need to leave home? I ask Siri, “What’s on my schedule?” She pulls up my calendar: meeting at Not Just Coffee at 10 a.m., lunch at Common Market at noon, Survivor at 8 p.m. (Yes, that show is still running.)

I go through my entire morning routine without touching a screen. These devices help me live smarter, more efficiently.

Atrium Health recently developed a new skill for Alexa. It enables patients to locate the nearest urgent care center and emergency room, check ER wait times, and reserve a spot in line. It doesn’t allow users to call 911, because an operator needs call-back capability, but as technology giants like Amazon and Google develop new products, this doesn’t seem like a distant addition. 

It also makes sense why we should keep some pieces of the medical system—and life in general—in the hands of humans, untouched by the robotic voices of Alexa or Siri. A robot can’t replace a doctor. Alexa can’t replicate the unwavering calm of a 911 call operator.

Many of the more than 300 doctors on our annual Top Doctors list use innovative tools and technologies to treat their patients, but technology can’t compare with a physician’s service. Alexa can answer a request, but she can’t reach out and ask, “How are you feeling?” Intuition, compassion, and intelligence are still the most valuable tools in a doctor’s briefcase.

I have one more smart device in my apartment: a SimpliSafe security camera with a motion sensor. It monitors the windows in my living room, so if a punk throws a rock through the glass again, I’ll have it on video. But the camera, well, isn’t always so smart.

My phone vibrates once I sit down at my desk that May morning with an alert that the camera sensed motion. Odd, as I’m not home. I open the application and see the orange-and-black-speckled furry butt of Zuri, my two-year-old, sun-loving cat. 

Categories: In Print, The Buzz