Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Alexa ventures to the ancient world

As many of you know, I am not only passionately interested in ancient history but, as an education technologist, I continue to explore new technologies and how they can be used to promote the study of the ancient world.

Alexa is a virtual assistant developed by Amazon that uses artificial intelligence to perform numerous tasks like music playback, making to-do lists, setting alarms, playing games, streaming podcasts, playing audiobooks, serving as an intercom, and providing weather, traffic, sports, and other real-time information, such as news, all using voice commands to an Alexa-enabled device such as a wifi-enabled Echo or Echo Dot speaker.  Alexa can also control light switches, door locks, Tvs, appliances, and other smart devices in a home automation system. What is particularly exciting for educators, though, is the ability to extend Alexa's  intelligence by installing "skills."

These skills can range from playing a wide range of ambient sounds for rest and meditation to quotes from ancient sources, one of the "skills" I developed.  You can also venture on imaginary quests to exotic places complete with sound effects, or hear memories you have stored. You can even learn to use cognitive techniques like constructing a "memory palace" to help you improve your recall. The vast majority of these "skills" are free and can be enabled on your device by simply saying "Alexa, enable (skill name) or going to the link below, searching for the skill and clicking the enable button.

https://alexa.amazon.com/spa/index.html#skills/

An Alexa-powered Amazon Echo Dot
Naturally, I wanted to try to create an Alexa skill myself that would be ancient history related.  Alexa has a feature called a "Flash Briefing" that plays short broadcasts of information that you choose to add to your Flash Briefing queue. Typically, these broadcasts are updated daily so you are kept up to date with developments in your chosen subject matter. Alexa starts you off with a default broadcast from NPR (National Public Radio) and your local weather.

An update I have always wanted was information about upcoming exhibits of artifacts from the ancient world. Too many times I have found out about fascinating exhibits after its too late to attend. So, I searched all through the catalog of Alexa skills to see if someone offered something like that and was disappointed to discover there were none. So, I decided to build one myself for other history enthusiasts.

Storyline makes the development of an Alexa Flash Briefing skill a breeze once you set up a free basic account. One of the founders, Vasili Shynkarenka, clearly explains the short process in this video:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1OIey0bOI2M&t=0s

First, though, you need to choose the information you wish to provide on a daily basis. In my case that was a list of exhibits opening soon or in progress or information about an existing collection of artifacts in a museum's permanent collection. Fortunately, for me, I have photographed many museum collections so I already knew many museums that host ancient artifact exhibitions and collections.

I created a Google spreadsheet to record all of the exhibits I could find along with their title, description, dates of presentation, the institution where the exhibit is taking place, the location and a URL where listeners can find out more about it. I decided to enter only one post each day, though, prioritizing the posts by opening and closing dates, to ensure I would have enough content for a daily update for quite some time. Each day when I post an exhibit, I change my font color in my spreadsheet from black to red to flag the entry as posted. Then, each morning I search the internet for more exhibits to add to my list.

Using the Storyline tool, I uploaded my exhibit skill to my own Alexa network. But, I wanted to
share my skill with other English-speaking history enthusiasts so decided to publish it to the the Alexa skill catalog.  I did so by using Storyline's "Publish" feature. It presents you with a form to fill out to provide Amazon with enough information for the Alexa skill catalog. First, I needed to choose a name for my new skill. Amazon recommends choosing a name that reflects what your skill is about in two or three words. I chose the skill name "Antiquities Alive".

Then I needed to create an icon for my skill that would be displayed in the Alexa skill catalog. I used a picture I had of an elegant Greek table support of griffins attacking a doe that I photographed years ago at the Getty Villa to create my skill icons - one 108X108 pixels and the other 512X512 pixels.

Then I wrote a short description of the skill (a couple of sentences) and a more in depth description of the skill (a paragraph) to describe the contents of the Flash Briefing. This will also appear in the Alexa skill catalog.

Then I was asked if I planned to update the information daily or weekly. I chose to update the skill daily because people using the Flash Briefing function of Alexa expect the information to change from day to day. However, this means I was committed to searching for new exhibits to list every day.

With the form complete, I clicked "Submit". It only took a few hours to get my "Antiquities Alive" Flash Briefing skill approved by Amazon.

Now, I go into Storyline each morning, click on my "Live" skill and enter a post for that  day.

After I had my first Flash Briefing skill, "Antiquities Alive," certified. I then began to think about other information I would like to get in my Flash Briefing. Many of us who study the ancient world like to hear quotes from ancient sources. So, I decided to create a new Flash Briefing skill that would enable Alexa to read an ancient quote to me each day - sort of like a classicist's daily vitamin pill. I knew that I could find quotes easily between the Internet Classics Archive, the Perseus Project, and the Guttenberg Project.

So, I created a new Flash Briefing skill I called "Classic Moments Daily." Again I used a Google sheet to record the quotes I had selected along with the author, the work, and a link to the original source. This skill was also approved within a few hours.

If you use Alexa's Flash Briefing feature, though, it can become overwhelming if you have too many broadcasts in your queue. I prefer to listen to my Flash Briefing while I'm doing my morning housekeeping chores like making the bed, folding clothes, etc. Although I started out with only a few broadcasts like NPR, the BBC, the weather and an "Alexa things to try" tip, my queue grew to the point where it is now twenty minutes long and I'm having to wait for it to finish before I move on to my next task. I now listen to my own skills, "Antiquities Alive" and "Classic Moments Daily" (to make sure they are functioning correctly) then I listen to a friend's skill "Today in America" which provides information about important people and events that occurred on the current day, then the "Archaeology Eureka Alert" which gives me news about new archaeological discoveries, "Daily Tech Headlines" and CNet Tech for tech news updates, Jimmy Fallon's Tonight Show monologue from the night before (for stress relief!), science and entertainment news updates, an AARP news update, the weather, and an "Alexa Things to Try" tip of the day.

Someone in the Storyline discussion forum mentioned having the same problem and asked if developers would provide the same information in a regular skill that could be called separately so they didn't have to listen to their entire Flash Briefing over and over if you wanted to learn more about a particular topic.

With this in mind, I decided to create a "sister" application to "Classic Moments Daily" and this month got approval for my new regular skill called "Classic Moments Rome" that can be called by itself if you want to listen to quotes from ancient Roman sources (a Greek sources version will be finished in a few more days).  When you ask Alexa to open "Classic Moments Rome" you will be able to hear an ancient quote along with the author's name and work quoted.  Then you will have the choice to say "Next" to listen to another quote, "Repeat" to hear the last quote again, or "Stop" if you've heard enough for the day. The quotes are stored in the same Google spreadsheet I created for Classic Moments Daily and pulled randomly by a program script so, usually, you won't hear the same quote twice in a row - especially since the database now includes almost 100 quotes. I also add new quotes daily if the new post to my Flash Briefing skill Classic Moments Daily is from a Roman source.

I am pulling the quotes from original translations. However, since short passages are easier to listen to than long, rambling paragraphs, I sometimes include a name or context to make the quote understandable. For example, in a quote about Gaius Marius' dealings with the kings of Numidia and Mauretania, I provide additional information about each person mentioned in the quote besides just their name. Also, in a regular skill, I can include some sound effects and I have done that in some cases.

I am also working on recreating virtual personalities from the ancient world that you will be able to converse with about their lives and respective cultures. The first will be published in June.

If you don't have an Amazon Echo speaker, either a full sized one or a little Dot, don't despair! You can now talk to Alexa on your phone with the free Alexa app!