Remember in The Matrix, when they instantly uploaded new skills to Keanu Reeves's brain? ("I know Kung Fu.") Well, here we are, some 17 years later and that bit of cinematic magic has become (sort of) real.
Today, anyone can gain fantastic new abilities in just a minute or two (via their digital doo-hickeys and respective app stores). And such is the case with Amazon's ghost-in-the-machine voice-based digital assistant, Alexa.
While Amazon's branding team prefers to call these modular abilities "skills" as opposed to "apps," they are indeed apps just like any software you'd download for iOS or Android. But unlike apps within those mobile OSes, you never actually "see" any part of Alexa's skills with your eyes, nor do you ever touch/tap any part of it with your hands. Alexa is a conversation-based OS.
To enable these new powers on your Alexa-powered device (an ever-expanding set), you simply go to the Alexa app you used to set up your device and then navigate over to the "Skills" tab on the left-hand side. Above the fold you'll find a number of Amazon-recommends skills, while down below you'll find skills separated into a number of "categories" (e.g. Lifestyle, News, and Productivity). All the skills are free at this point, and can be "enabled" (or conversely, "disabled") with a single click within the app.
Each skill is accessed by voice by using a unique "invocation," following the usual "Alexa" prompt. We should note that the technology is still relatively new (i.e. occasionally buggy) and utilizes some strained grammatical commands (often in the form of "Alexa, ask [skill's name] for [some feature]").
Click through the attached slideshow to check out some very cool skills you can use in your Alexa-enabled device right now. Like all app stores, there's a near-overwhelming number of skills currently available for Alexa—with new ones added all the time. Thankfully, there's a bit of crowdsourcing going on and customers are invited to review and rate Alexa's Skills just as they would for any product in Amazon's ecosystem. We tested various skills on our office's Amazon Echo, mostly ignoring those with little (or poor) feedback, and here are some of our favorites. (Got some you really like? Leave them in the comments.)
We should note that one of the cool things about Alexa is its ability to be a voice UI for any number of other connected devices (it allows you to control smart bulbs in your house with your voice, for example). For the purpose of this feature, we only enabled skills that Alexa could utilize without the use of additional hardware.