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May 25, 2017

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Alexa knows Las Vegas; just ask her

City of Las Vegas is one of the first public agencies to work with the artificial-intelligence system

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Mark Lennihan / AP

This July 29, 2015, photo shows Amazon’s Echo, a digital assistant that continually listens for commands such as for a song, a sports score or the weather.

Have a question about a Las Vegas park or your city council representative? Just ask Alexa.

Amazon Echo, the increasingly popular voice-controlled device that uses an artificial-intelligence system called Alexa, knows a thing or two about Las Vegas. City officials recently launched a “skill” — a set of abilities uploaded to the product app — that contains helpful information for residents and tourists alike.

The public agency’s foray into artificial intelligence means people won’t necessarily need to log onto the internet or call a city employee for certain information if they own an Alexa-enabled device.

“We are sort of the pioneers in doing this,” said Michael Sherwood, the city’s director of technology and innovation.

Amazon’s software interfaces with the information uploaded by the city and spits out the answers in Alexa’s soothing, robotic voice. So, for instance, if you’re dying to know when the next city council meeting is, you’d simply say, “Alexa, ask My Vegas about the next city council meeting.”

“My Vegas” is the phrase that prompts the voice-activated device to search the constantly updating information provided by the city, which is one of the first public agencies to adopt the technology. Utah’s Department of Public Safety unveiled the first governmental use of the tech-savvy product — a practice test for residents studying for their driver’s license exam.

“Obviously, we’re the city of Las Vegas,” Sherwood said. “We’re iconic. At least from the technology perspective, we want to be on that edge providing services and delivery of services that no one else is doing.”

Down the line, the city’s innovation gurus envision the technology going beyond question-and-answer sessions. They want residents to be able to create accounts and check the status of their sewer bill, renew a business license, pay a parking fine, register for recreational programs or even receive news bulletins from the city.

The technology could be just as useful for people visiting Las Vegas if the city installs information kiosks powered by the artificial-intelligence system, Sherwood said.

“What if you could walk up to a machine and have a conversation with it?” he said. “And say, ‘I’m downtown here at First and Lewis. Where is the closest park?’ It would be able to show you on the screen where the park is.”

The technology stands to benefit city employees, as well, by providing pertinent information in an efficient manner — efficient being the key term behind this undertaking. Sherwood said the city began developing capabilities for the Amazon Echo in September and unveiled a working model to management staff in November. The staff already is working on similar functions for the Google Home device.

The projects exemplify the city’s desire to leverage complex technology created by other companies, thus providing low-cost enhancements to residents’ or visitors’ interactions with local government, Sherwood said.

“We have that ability to really reach a constituency level that we maybe haven’t been able to capture before,” he said.

But, first, you’ll need an Alexa-enabled device. Since its launch two years ago, Amazon reportedly has sold 5 million of the original Echo devices. The Amazon Echo normally retails for $179.99, while the smaller Echo Dot, which debuted earlier this year, costs $49.99.

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