Using Alexa for Math and Science
Updated: May 4, 2020
Most people are at least vaguely aware that Alexa can do basic math, due to sensational news stories like "Smart kid uses Alexa for Homework Help." I learned a while ago that Alexa is now integrated with WolframAlpha, which means she is capable of significantly more than just arithmetic. The obvious goal with this partnership is to make her sound smarter, and give her a leg up on Siri and Google Assistant. The new smartness works by default without enabling any new skills, which is nice. There is a problem though: you have to phrase things perfect to get the question to actually query WolframAlpha, and then you have to be lucky enough to have WolframAlpha understand it. This all works surprisingly well... when it works. When it doesn’t work, it can be quite frustrating.
Things to try:
Alexa, how many golf balls can fit in a 747?
Alexa, how big is Scotland?
Alexa, what is the rotation period of the crab pulsar?
Alexa, what is the electron configuration of Barium?
Alexa, what is the formula for dopamine?
Alexa, what is Planck's Constant?
Alexa, what is the heat of formation of water?
Alexa, what is the integral of arcsin(x) times the natural log of x?
That last one has quite an answer, remember that you can always say "Alexa, Stop."
Here's an example of something that I couldn't get her to compute:
Alexa, what is the gravitational potential energy of one kilogram at a height of one kilometer on Mars?
You can copy and paste that into the search box at wolframalpha.com (minus the word Alexa) and it gives you the correct result, but I can't get her to answer the question for the life of me. You can ask her "Alexa, what is gravity on Mars?" write it down, and then ask her to perform a separate calculation if you want. She will answer “What is the gravitational potential energy of 1kg at a height of 10 meters?” using Earth gravity by default. I can’t seem to phrase the Mars question well enough for Alexa, though. Maybe you can get it to work. Please let me know if you do.
Another example of the stark differences between Alexa and WolframAlpha web queries is position of man-made solar system objects. WolframAlpha gives a pretty informative answer to both “Starman Location” and “What is the current location of the Falcon Heavy Demonstration Mission?” while Alexa resorts to a web search. The situation is the same for both of the Voyager spacecraft.
UPDATE: I got her to respond to "Alexa, where is OSIRIS-REx?" Maybe there is hope.
Overall this is more frustrating than promising. I'm going to stick with it though, because when it works, I find it less distracting than turning to a screen for an answer. For me, switching to a new browser window for a small question or calculation can completely pull me out of the work I was doing. And if you practice it when the kids are at school, you could probably walk around acting like Geordi La Forge when they ask you stuff... just don't ask Alexa to reconfigure the main deflector dish, because she doesn't have a clue.
Bonus: "Alexa, beam me up."
Originally published on Linkedin