On Thursday, Arizona State University (ASU) marks the beginning of its fall term, which doubles as the grand opening for Tooker House — a brand new, high-tech dorm for first-year engineering students.
Tooker House sports cutting-edge amenities, including a workspace with 3D printers and laser cutters for students to use. This dorm is designed to be the crown jewel for ASU’s Fulton Schools of Engineering, which it says is the largest engineering program in the country.
But wait, there’s more: Every single one of the 1,600 freshmen moving into Tooker House is getting an Echo Dot smart speaker, retail price $US50, thanks to a one-time donation from Amazon. Notably, accepting the device isn’t mandatory, and some students may elect not to take advantage of the offer.
The devices also come equipped with an ASU “skill,” built in collaboration with Amazon, which lets students quickly get information on the academic calendar and events on campus just by asking the Echo’s Alexa digital assistant. It also sports the normal Alexa features, including setting alarms and playing music.
For ASU, it’s a way to ensure its students stay on the cutting edge. For Amazon, it’s a part of a larger master plan to work out how it can use the Alexa assistant to own the future of computing.
The big idea
From ASU’s perspective, the Echo Dot speakers speak straight to the engineering program’s mission, according to Fulton Schools dean Kyle Squires. He says the Echo Dot speakers “merge the living environment with the learning environment,” with students encouraged by the school’s curriculum to build their own Alexa skills.
For Amazon, the “first of its kind” ASU partnership speaks of bigger things to come in higher education, says Amazon Alexa director Eric King. For starters, it’s going to give students an incentive to build voice apps in general, and Alexa skills in particular. That’s good for Amazon and the Alexa platform as a whole.
“It’s going to inspire the next generation of developers to use voice,” says King.
Plus, King says Amazon and ASU are working closely together to see how students actually use their Echo Dots — not through directly monitoring student usage or tapping their devices to listen in, says Squires, but by observing and gathering feedback.
That feedback, in turn, will be used by Amazon as it figures out the best ways for Alexa to integrate itself into living spaces and academic life. Today, that might be setting an alarm for an early class; tomorrow, Alexa might be able to tell you the best route to your intramural soccer game, or the content of your next exam, says King.
Ultimately, King says universities are a crucial part of the future of Alexa and Echo, as the future of voice-based computing takes shape. He hopes the collaboration with ASU is the first of many in the years to come.
In that light, King says the donation of these 1,600 Echo devices “was as much an investment” as it was a donation.