Evangelizing With ‘Alexa’

A growing library of apps brings faith to Amazon devices.

(photo: Shutterstock)

As new technology insinuates itself into our lives, Catholics keep searching for ways to integrate it with their faith. From prayer apps and podcasts to Angelus bells on mobile phones and services like Formed (a Catholic Netflix), there are always new ways to harness this technology for devotional purposes.

Personal digital assistants have been evolving for a long time, as hardware and software developers seek to turn Star Trek’s conversational computers into a reality. Simply talk, and the technology responds.

Apple’s Siri, integrated into its iOS devices, was the first to make that a practical reality. Ask Siri to schedule your adoration hours, and it will add the time and date to your calendar, then provide a reminder at the right hour. Umberto Eco once declared that Apple computers are Catholic while PCs are Protestant, and Siri confirms it. Ask, “Who founded the Catholic Church?” and it responds: “Jesus Christ created Catholic Church.” Amen, Siri. Amen.

Amazon’s answer to Siri is Alexa, and it’s much less of a papist. Ask it the same question, and it reads a more Protestant-sounding Wikipedia entry.

Lately, however, it’s gained ground on Siri, with new features that bring prayer, Scripture and Catholic media content into the Alexa ecosystem.

Alexa was unleashed on the world in 2014 with the release of the Amazon Echo, and it has migrated through various products produced by Amazon for the home market. Echo is a “smart speaker,” which is really just an audio device with a built-in virtual assistant that responds to a “wake word.” It is always listening, and if it hears “Alexa” (a word chosen because it’s less common in speech and the hard “X” sound is easier to detect), it executes or responds to whatever commands follow, if it understands them. In the early days, this mostly meant “Alexa, play Neil Young” or “Alexa, what’s the weather today?”

Naturally, Alexa is only as powerful as its programming allows it to be and only as responsive as its voice recognition. The voice recognition varies in accuracy, as it does with all such devices. The programming, fortunately, is open-ended and ever-expanding, so if you want Alexa to do something, you just need to find the right “skill.”

Skills are little applets built with the Alexa Skills Kit, which allows developers to add functions to any Alexa-supported hardware. These skills are found in the Alexa setup app and reside in the “cloud,” rather than on individual devices.

As Alexa-supporting products have grown and diversified, so have the skills available. The first line of products were the Echo speakers. These were followed by the Echo Dot, a smaller version of the Echo designed to connect to external speakers.

Displays were added with the Echo Spot and Show, and soon a wide range of smart home devices allowed control of thermostats, outlets, lights, door locks and even robotic vacuum cleaners.

All of them can be programmed to function through voice commands and apps.

Amazon is even producing a microwave that responds to voice commands such as: “Alexa, microwave on high for two minutes.”


Being Catholic on Alexa

What does all this mean for the faithful?

The Alexa family of products can perform various functions, but the one most cited by Catholics using the device is as a smart speaker. Alexa enables people to play a selection of media without touching a device, activating an app, searching for content or scrolling through lists.

“I use Alexa as a way to stream Catholic radio without bogging down my computer’s resources,” Barb Szyszkiewicz, editor of CatholicMom.com, told the Register. “I subscribe to Sirius/XM satellite radio, so I listen to The Catholic Channel on Alexa. I also listen to the Son Rise Morning Show on Sacred Heart Radio and Relevant Radio programs. I’ve also added Franciscan Media’s ‘Saint of the Day’ to my ‘morning briefing’ within Alexa.”

A morning briefing is called a “routine”: a set of skills programmed to run in a row without additional commands or input. The speakers can function as an alarm clock, then run a set of audio flashes to start your day. Szyszkiewicz, for example, has hers set to run Franciscan Media’s “Saint of the Day,” local weather, EWTN News and local news when activated.

A routine, says Amazon representative Mitchell Woodrow, “allows you to automate a series of customizable actions using a single voice command of your choice. For example, say, ‘Alexa, good morning,’ and Alexa will turn on the lights, read you your calendar for the day, and launch the ‘Catholic Reporter’ radio. You can also create routines based on the time of day — for example, you can create a routine that has Alexa turn on the kitchen lights, start the coffee maker and launch your favorite podcast via the ‘TuneIn’ skill at 6am every weekday and at 9am every Saturday and Sunday.”

If Alexa has a strength, it’s in the skills-programming tools, which are an open system. Programmers can build new functions into Alexa, and the number of skills currently stands at 50,000 and climbing. A skill becomes part of Alexa’s set of abilities by being activated in the menu system, and several developers are expanding options for the faithful.

“Catholic Daily” adds the commands “Alexa, ask ‘Catholic Daily’ for the readings for today” or “Alexa, ask ‘Catholic Daily’ for the Gospel today.” The Scripture is then read in Alexa’s computer-synthesized voice.

“Catholic Prayers” does something similar for various prayers, including the Hail, Holy Queen, Anima Christi, Memorare, Angelus, St. Michael Prayer, Act of Contrition, Miraculous Medal Prayer and many others. Just give the order, and Alexa will pray along with you.

“Catholic Calendar” tells you who the saint is today, this week or on any particular date. There’s also a skill called “Mass Times” that responds well if you use the correct syntax, reeling off all the Mass times for a particular day within a geographical area. “Holy Rosary” does just what it promises. Say “Alexa, ask the ‘Holy Rosary’ app to pray the Joyful Mysteries,” and it does, pausing after each prayer for an “Amen” before continuing. There are also “Catholic Facts” and “Catholic Trivia,” which offer random bits of information and questions.

Based on conversations with Catholics who use it, podcasts, news and music are the most-used features. SQPN, a Catholic podcasting network, offers its “Praystation Portable Divine Office” daily, but finding the right hours is still a little tricky. SQPN CEO Domenico Bettinelli laments the limitations of the current skill programming: “I wish there was a way for a programmer to develop a skill that allowed SQPN to offer just the right prayers for the particular hour with a voice command. For example, ‘Alexa, play the Morning Prayer for today.’” As the skills-programming language becomes more robust over time, it seems likely that more complex orders like this will be possible.

Playing podcasts and streaming live audio are at the heart of the EWTN skill set, which was recently revamped to be more powerful. Developed by FutureSoft, it allows the user to play live television or livestream radio or call up the most recent two episodes of any show by name. Thus, “Alexa, ask EWTN to listen to The Journey Home” calls up a recording of that particular show. In addition, the app links to FutureSoft’s “Truth and Life Bible” app, which includes a dramatic recording of the New Testament. This needs to be purchased, but once linked, it makes commands such as “Alexa, ask EWTN to read Mark Chapter 5 verse 8” possible.

This app replaces the previous one for EWTN, which only offered the daily news brief. As FutureSoft President Tim Farrell notes, “Now we’re able to provide full livestreaming of the network, or you can call up any of the shows and it will play back the last two episodes. There are so many shows and episodes that trying to drill down to a given show is a little tricky, so right now it’s just the current and previous episode.”

But not all Alexa users seem eager to integrate the resource into their prayer lives.

Will Duquette, of the Lay Order of Preachers, thinks Alexa’s “killer app” is the shopping list, which allows you to add anything just by saying it, but doesn’t see himself asking his Echo to help him recite his Rosary.

“Alexa doesn’t touch my faith life particularly. It can’t pray for me, after all.”

Thomas L. McDonald writes about

Church history and technology.

Edward Reginald Frampton, “The Voyage of St. Brendan,” 1908, Chazen Museum of Art, Madison, Wisconsin.

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