By now you've probably heard of Alexa, the smart assistant program created by Amazon.
She stole the show at CES, appearing in everything from TVs to appliances to cars, and now she's being used by the City of Las Vegas to reach people.
Currently the city's "MyVegas" Alexa app knows city history, meeting times, park amenities and other information, but in the future it might be a way to pay bills and renew business licenses.
Michael Sherwood, the city's technology director, gave us a demo.
Alexa: Something you might not know about Las Vegas is, Las Vegas was founded as a city on May 15, 1905, on 110 acres of land. Would you like to learn more?
Alexa: Something else you might not know about Las Vegas is, Las Vegas was incorporated on June 1, 1911.
“Alexa is an automated voice product that allows you to speak to the device itself, and it interacts with you in a verbal way,” Sherwood explained. “If you remember George Jetson, or some of the different type of technologies, the Space Odyssey, it’s really talking to a computer in simple language and it returning a response back.”
Uber created an app to hail rides, Domino’s made an app to order pizza, and now, the City of Las Vegas is working on one. It’s called MyVegas.
“Right now people that own an Alexa can download our app — or it’s called a skill — and start taking advantage of it right away,” Sherwood said. “What we really look at doing is maybe incorporating that technology into devices we do put out in the city. Maybe they’re going to be kiosks along the street corridors, maybe we’ll partner with our friends at [Regional Transportation Commission] and work with them on that technology. It’s really about making Las Vegas as a whole, as a community, stand out and have ways to communicate that other cities don’t have, or haven’t thought of yet.”
So what is MyVegas communicating? Right now it can tell you about Las Vegas history, city staff, park amenities and meeting times. Using the phrase “ask MyVegas” tells Alexa you want information from the city’s app.
Sherwood: So you can go, Alexa, ask My Vegas how do I report graffiti?
Alexa: Please contact operations and maintenance at 702-229-1030 to report issues regarding graffiti.
The answer is helpful, and not something Alexa would likely find without the app. Sherwood shows how using MyVegas differs from Alexa’s standard internet search.
“We’re going to ask Alexa, on her own, who the mayor of Las Vegas is, and then we’ll ask the application. You’ll see the difference of the information we can provide in a customized view versus what’s off the internet,” Sherwood explained.
Sherwood: Alexa, who is the mayor of Las Vegas?
Alexa: The mayor of Las Vegas is Carolyn Goodman.
Sherwood: So that was just the basic internet answer – very short, sweet, and gave you exactly what you asked for. Now we’re going to ask it another time, but we’re going to ask the MyVegas application. Alexa, ask MyVegas, who is the mayor of Las Vegas?
Alexa pauses here for about five seconds to think.
Alexa: The Mayor of Las Vegas is Carolyn Goodman. Winning 60 percent of the vote, she became the mayor of Las Vegas in 2011.
Sherwood: So you can see the difference there, where you got a more richer, fulfilled answer than just straight Carolyn Goodman.
Using Alexa is easier than using other technology to Google something. It only requires you to wake the device and ask a question aloud. There’s no pulling out your phone, no opening a browser or typing out a question. But it’s not always perfect.
Sherwood: Alexa, ask MyVegas about Lorenzi Park.
Alexa: [beeps, but doesn't respond]
Sherwood: Alexa, ask MyVegas about parks in Ward 2.
Alexa: Councilman Bob Beers represents Las Vegas residents living in…
Sherwood: Alexa, stop.
Clearly there are kinks to work out. But this is just the first iteration. Like other technologies, it’s likely to improve.
“I really believe that these types of devices have staying power.” Sherwood said, “I think they’re going to change over time. Much like you saw the first iPhone, it’s very different today than it was when it originally came out. But talking to a computer, that’s something that’s been around since computers probably came out. Part of what we’re looking at doing in the future is having it know what you ask, or keep track of what you ask, so in the future it’s more prepared to provide you with that information you want to know. More of that artificial intelligence so we can, not just guess, but have a good feeling we know what you want.”
Sherwood hopes MyVegas can become a single stop for city business, evenrything from paying bills to renewing licenses. He says government is typically behind when it comes to technology, but with Alexa, the City of Las Vegas could get ahead.
Michael Sherwood, director of technology and innovation, City of Las Vegas
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