Amazon Echo Show's Mad Lib-like skills are just weird enough to make you want one

Amazon Creative AI beta
(Image credit: Future)

There may be an excellent reason to buy your family an Amazon Echo Show 5 Kids this season. And it all comes down to silliness.

For decades, it was a time-honored tradition, driving cross country with only Mad Libs to keep a family laughing and sane. Before digital, we had notepads full of silly story frameworks. They were really just skeletons and the note-taker would call out prompts from the page that asked for a person, place, thing, animal, feeling, etc. The goal was to generate the most absurd story possible, which the designated transcriber would then read to the hysterical wails of the family.

However, the more trips you took, the fewer unfilled pages there were. Analog Mad Libs had its limits.

Recently, I test-drove Amazon's Mad Lib-style efforts on an Amazon Echo Show 5 Kids edition. This is very much like the Amazon Echo Show 5 (2nd Gen) we reviewed in 2021, but with built-in parental controls and content filters. It's also home to Amazon's Create with Alexa beta, which the company announced in Sept and is rolling out officially today (Nov. 29).

When I heard about these AI-powered story-creation skills, I didn't think much of them. In fact, I may have dismissed them since AIs are currently writing some of the online news prose you read and, to be honest, this rubs me the wrong way.

Create with Alexa — even in its beta form — isn't the kind of cold-impersonal AI content generator that burns my shorts. It's a kid and adult-friendly story builder that blends the essence of Mad Libs (no official relation to the brand) with the power of AI but in a way that puts you in control.

To get started, we told Amazon's voice assistant Alexa, "Let's make a story." This launched the creative AI beta and its kid-friendly interface. It walked us through choosing a handful of story settings and character details:

  • A place: I chose space
  • A character: I made mine a monkey
  • A character name: "Twiggy" sounded good to me
  • Type of person: I went with "lazy."

Like Mad Libs (there's no official affiliation with Amazon), the prompts were designed to help push the story along in increasingly bizarre (but always kid-safe) directions.

The prompts are curated and offer a relatively limited set of options and themes that include underwater, enchanted forest, and space exploration, as well as just four customization choices (story hero, hero name, descriptive word, color). Whatever doesn't fit inside those pre-defined prompts is ignored by the system. In other words, you can't build a whacky story built out of your personal details (name, address, etc.)

Amazon told me that the system uses three different AIs to construct a whimsical story. It uses a language model trained on human-written stories. Second, it uses an AI scene generation model to build the background, properly places objects and story subjects in the scene, and even give characters facial expressions. You might call the third AI "The Conductor," as it generates what Amazon calls "complementary music" for your story.

Amazon Creative AI beta

(Image credit: Amazon)

All those AIs raise the variability level of each story, which means that even with the same prompts, you might get a different tale.

This is all well and good but from what I can tell, these AIs may also be comedians. The resulting story was just as ridiculous as any Mad Lib we created on the ride from Colorado to Florida.

Here's a sample passage:

"Twiggy used the blue, star-filled Sun to broadcast their Jokes to all the stars and moon. The audience loved what they saw and Twiggy did not get tired of being funny as they watched him."

Amazon Creative AI beta

(Image credit: Future)

Where Mad Libs ends and Create with Alexa potentially takes off, though, is in the system's ability to retain these silly story details and the character you co-built with it to, eventually, power other stories. Essentially, Twiggy can, with a future update, be my lead space money in an unlimited number of AI/human co-authored tales. 

Your original stories are all stored in your personalized, in-skill, media gallery, so you can view and replay them at any time.

What I like about this concept is that it's not just a child or anyone staring at another screen, waiting for it to tell them another story and entertain them. Creative AI is, by design, a co-creation effort. The story doesn't develop or go anywhere without input from your child or you (or the two of you together). It's a smart way of using AI without letting it take over.

The experience is designed to work on all Echo Show devices. When Amazon lowers the price of the Echo Show 5 for Kids this holiday buying season, I think Create with Alexa could be the reason you go after that deal.

Lance Ulanoff
Editor At Large

A 38-year industry veteran and award-winning journalist, Lance has covered technology since PCs were the size of suitcases and “on line” meant “waiting.” He’s a former Lifewire Editor-in-Chief, Mashable Editor-in-Chief, and, before that, Editor in Chief of and Senior Vice President of Content for Ziff Davis, Inc. He also wrote a popular, weekly tech column for Medium called The Upgrade.

Lance Ulanoff makes frequent appearances on national, international, and local news programs including Live with Kelly and Ryan, the Today Show, Good Morning America, CNBC, CNN, and the BBC.