Folks who’ve been checking out the series lately has probably noticed I’ve been a bit focused on how smart speakers and voice assistance have been changing the way we interact with technology – allowing us to talk more and type less. And recently I became aware of a project Adobe is working on to allow your Amazon Echo devices to read PDF documents to you just by asking Alexa. But one of the more interesting parts of the story is that one of the folks working on this project was intern Cedrick Ilo, who is currently a graduate research assistant working on his Masters of Computer Science at Virginia Tech University.
Ilo is a student member of the National GEM Consortium, an organization focused on increasing the participation of underrepresented groups (African Americans, American Indians, and Hispanic Americans) at the master’s and doctoral levels in engineering and science. He shared with me his experiences in the program and working as an intern at Adobe, and his role on the PDF Audible project that is working on allowing Alexa to read your documents back to you.
Below is an edited transcript of our conversation. To see our full conversation watch the embedded video or check out the embedded SoundCloud player below.
Small Business Trends: So tell me a little bit more about the internship at Adobe and what you’ve been doing as a part of that internship.
Cedrick Ilo: I’ve been there for two past summers. The first summer dealing with the PDF Audible that we’re discussing later. The internship program is really awesome, honestly. I’m really glad that they’re just accepting people there, they allow you to be yourself. The community there, you can just grow and learn. When you have questions they don’t treat it as like, “Oh, this guy’s annoying, I need to do stuff.” They treat it as like, “Okay, we know that you’re growing, you’re maturing, so let’s see if we can help you understand more.” They’re willing to devote some time, block out time from their busy schedule just to help you, and it’s really enriching, and it’s really empowering.
Small Business Trends: So tell me about PDF Audible. Was that your idea?
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It’s actually helpful to other people. The main goal of this was to help people who has accessibility problems. People who don’t have problems like that, I mean of course they can use it, too. But, our main goal was to help people who have accessibility problems.
Small Business Trends: Did you already have a little knowledge or were you already using Echoes and Alexa devices before he even came to you?
Cedrick Ilo: Oh, no, man. I don’t have any smart devices. I’m a broke college student.
Small Business Trends: (laughter)
Cedrick Ilo: I was just like, “Hey, this is a cool device. Let me play with it.” Any time I see technology like this, I always drop my hand on it and start playing with it, tinkering. That’s what I like to do. I just like technology. That’s why I’m focusing on augmented reality right now, because that’s definitely the next wave of communication and visualization.
Small Business Trends: So how difficult was it for you, not really having any experience with it beforehand, to create a skill and doing all the things that this thing ends up doing? But, matter of fact, we should talk about what it exactly does before we get into how you helped to build it. So what does PDF Audible actually do?
Cedrick Ilo: PDF Audible is basically just reading out any PDF document that you have in your Document Cloud account. There’s two phases to it. We also have an application on your phone, IOS or Android, that you can connect to your account, and then you basically scan it using a scan app and scan the PDF; and it downloads to your account and it goes straight to your PDF Audible account, which is connected to the Amazon Alexa skill. My partner worked on the scan application of it, and I was mostly working on the Alexa skill. We both had our hands on, too, but I did more of the front end and the back end of Amazon Polly. There’s so many different features that we was doing to it and it was really cool.
Small Business Trends: So basically the scan app scans the PDF and that takes the document into the cloud, and the cloud actually has some natural language processing to turn that PDF into some text that can be spoken back by Alexa by somebody asking “Can you read the document back to me?”
Cedrick Ilo: Yeah. So that’s what Amazon Polly does, and the Lambda skill that we created for it.
Small Business Trends: Cool. So how long did it take you to create the skill?
Cedrick Ilo: The whole summer. I mean, I guess certain parts, because it was working in parts and it depended on the milestones that we had. Like, we had to introduce this to not only our regular juror meetings that we had weekly, but also we had to give it to my manager’s boss, who runs everything. And then we had to present it to the VP of engineering and marketing, so we had to have another iteration ready for that. And also at the final end of the summer we had to use it to show everybody in Adobe, where all the interns come together. So it was a lot of different iterations that we tweaked here and there, but it was like a whole-summer project, and at the end, that’s when we finally put it in stones. Like, “Alright, this is it. We’re not touching it anymore. We’re packing it up now.” And the next people who touch it: hey, it’s your job now. It’s my baby, but it’s your job now to take care of it.
Small Business Trends: So what kind of response did you get when you showed it off for the first time?
Cedrick Ilo: Right off the bat, people loved it. They were like, “Oh, I can talk to it?” I mean, it’s so interesting. It’s like every time I think about new technology and how people interact, my mom and my grandma. It’s like, “What is you? How you do that?” So that’s how it was. But it also made me feel special, too, as well. Since everyone else was doing either something like digital analytics or something that could be put on a cardboard tri-fold poster, our demonstration was more hands-on, so they secluded us and put us in a room. So people had to come in because when you’re speaking to it, it needs to hear your voice alone. I don’t think the Echoes … Well, probably now, it’s a lot better than it was before, like two summers ago. Probably like a whole year ago for us. The hardware in the device.
Small Business Trends: Right.
Cedrick Ilo: We needed to isolate the sound so when people interact with it, they could get the full experience of it. And it’s really interesting, and to this day people’s like, “Man, your project’s so cool,” and stuff like that. I’m like, “Hey, man. I’m just here to do a job. But, yes, my project is cool, though.
Small Business Trends: I think it’s cool, but I also think it’s useful, and I think a lot of people are gonna be able to do things that maybe they weren’t able to do before.
Cedrick Ilo: Yeah.
Small Business Trends: Because now, like you said, from an accessibility stand-point, there are people who definitely who are gonna benefit. But it goes beyond that, I think. I’m already thinking about how I could use it, when it becomes available. So that’s really cool.
This is part of the One-on-One Interview series with thought leaders. The transcript has been edited for publication. If it's an audio or video interview, click on the embedded player above, or subscribe via iTunes or via Stitcher.