When’s the Next Local Humanist Group Meeting? Ask Alexa.

I’m a member of the Red Bank Humanists (RBH), a chapter of the American Humanist Association that meets monthly in Red Bank, New Jersey. When I joined the board of RBH, I didn’t know what I could do to be of help, but it wasn’t long before I realized our website could use an upgrade. I’ve had lots of computer experience, but almost none with web design or programming. After a couple of months of research and getting nowhere, my son recommended I give WIX, a free website builder, a try. It was easy to learn, and I transitioned and updated our website in short order. When I worked in the computer industry, we used to say, “Do someone a favor, and it becomes your job.” Now I’m the group’s webmaster.

When Amazon came out with the Echo, a voice-controlled home device that acts as a personal assistant, I was an early adopter of the technology. The Echo responds to the name “Alexa,” and she now lives in my kitchen where she plays music, tells me the weather, and times the rising of bread dough. “Alexa, tell me the news,” and she’ll play news audio clips from NPR. “Alexa, add milk to the shopping list,” and it’s done. You can even have fun with it—try asking, “Alexa, what is your quest?” (Alexa’s response: “To seek the Holy Grail!”)

Alexa can do all this and much more—third-party developers are able to create specialized custom skills for Alexa to perform. Geekwire reports that Alexa can now perform over 7,000 skills, including ordering an Uber or Lyft, asking Jeopardy! questions, or even pairing wine with food. Needless to say, I became dependent on the services Alexa provided, so I started thinking about what she could do for the Red Bank Humanists and began learning how to write and publish an Alexa skill myself.

The hardest part was getting a clear understanding of how it all went together. How was I to interact with it? What was I responsible for? As usual, there’s lots of instructional documentation available online but written from the perspective of someone who assumed I knew as much as they did. Also, I had to learn a new (for me) programming language. I started out ambitious, and was quickly humbled to make my goals more modest. But as Elwood P. Dowd said, “I’ve wrestled with reality for thirty- five years, and I’m happy to state I finally won out.” I eventually completed my skill and had it approved.

If you have an Echo, Echo Dot, or any other Alexa device, you can give it a try. Just tell Alexa to enable “Red Bank Humanists.” Say, “Alexa, ask Red Bank Humanists, when is the next forum?” or “Alexa, ask Red Bank Humanists, who is the next speaker?” and Alexa will answer. You can ask Alexa the name of our president, who’s on our board of directors, or who’s in charge of our book club.

Building an Alexa skill for the Red Bank Humanists was a great learning experience, but most of our members don’t use the technology yet, even though it provides great benefits, especially for seniors who hardly use smartphones to their full advantage. (I rarely see anyone in our group using iPhone’s voice-command assistant, Siri, either). There may be other AHA local groups that would benefit from creating an Alexa skill for their members.

At any rate, I did it, I own it, I use it, and I maintain it. As with the Red Bank Humanists, it now has become my job, and I’m pleased to support my local group. But here’s my advice: if you want a hobby, learn to play the cello and everyone will leave you alone!