Everyone could use a virtual assistant, right?

Created date

March 2nd, 2018
A woman stands in her kitchen with a Google Home Virtual Assistant

These elegant robot sidekicks answer questions, take commands.

Recent years have seen the invention and widespread proliferation of smart speakers and virtual assistants. For the purposes of simplicity, we’ll conflate the two here.

The reason we're conflating the two is because of the way these “intelligent personal assistants” are so often intertwined with a particular set of hardware, whether it’s a smart speaker, like the Amazon Echo, or a brand of mobile device, like iPhones and iPads.

How they work

All of these assistants are essentially artificial intelligence that responds to your input, whether that’s processing a text message or listening to you through a microphone and using what’s called natural language processing. The difference is that, instead of the artificial intelligence (AI) we’re used to seeing in sci-fi movies and books that solves complicated equations and saves the universe (or, conversely, imperils it), these AI devices help you remember whether you need milk from the store or that you have a haircut appointment at 3 p.m. today at Château de Cheveux.

More importantly, for some people, they provide a kind of unintrusive companionship as well as capable assistant in an emergency situation.

Picture it this way: you have a robot sidekick ready at a moment’s notice to respond to questions or commands.

You might say, “Okay, Google, what’s the oldest known tree in the world?” And the chic white vase-looking thing on your bookshelf will chirp to life and tell you the answer. (“It’s a Great Basin bristlecone pine located in California, and it’s more than 5,000 years old.”)

Or you might say, “Siri, where is the closest gas station?” and Siri will helpfully respond.

Or you might get into bed and pull up the covers and say, “Alexa, play the Kindle book Great Expectations,” and Alexa will dutifully begin reading to you.

While not every device is capable of calling 911 in an emergency situation, these devices do still offer some options in the event of a severe accident, fall, or incapacitation. Alexa offers an “Ask My Buddy” skill that lets you configure “buddies” that it can contact. So if you’ve fallen and can’t get up, you can shout, “Alexa, ask my buddy to alert my daughter,” or something similar.

Obviously, there’s a great deal of overlap from one of these assistants to another. They pretty much all handle the basics of answering questions, setting reminders, playing specific songs, reporting news headlines, setting timers, reciting traffic conditions, and so on and so forth.

But this technology would be of little use if it weren’t able to be omnipresent in our lives. Which is why Amazon, Apple, Google, Microsoft, and more have been eager to fill our homes with smart speakers—elegant-looking devices roughly smaller than a coffee maker that sit on your kitchen counter or living room side table with microphones and speakers built in, always listening and ready at a moment’s notice to play “Eye of the Tiger” or recite the recipe for burgundy beef or even tell you a random knock-knock joke.

Apple and Siri

While you might argue that Amazon’s Alexa has overtaken Siri in terms of general popular cultural awareness, there’s no question that Siri was the first major buzzword among these types of digital helpers. Siri has come a long way since she came to prominence on the iPhone 4S nearly seven years ago and is now integrated not only into iPhones but into other Apple products like iPads, Macs, Apple TV, and more. If you already own Apple products and are ensconced within the App Store and iTunes ecosystem, Siri’s probably your best bet.

Amazon’s Alexa

If you’re an Amazon Prime member, Alexa can do wonders to make your day-to-day life easier. Alexa is available on Kindle devices as well as Amazon’s Echo and Dot smart speakers. And this is where Amazon has really shaken up the market. Alexa does all of the usual stuff most assistants do but also ties into your Amazon account to order or reorder products with a simple command or play content from your book, music, TV, or movie library.

Google Assistant

Not to be outdone, Google’s assistant is widely available thanks to the ubiquity of Android phones and tablets. In addition, Google Home is the company’s entry into the smart speaker market and offers tight integration into Google’s entertainment ecosystem.

Microsoft’s Cortana

Most likely the least-known of this group, Microsoft’s assistant is tied closely to its Bing search engine and Windows computers and phones, as well as devices like the Xbox One and Microsoft’s Invoke smart speaker. What might help make Cortana a household name like the others on this list is the collaboration between Cortana and Alexa that Microsoft announced last summer. It basically means you can rely on Cortana on your Windows 10 computer and still have access to Alexa to manage some of your Amazon-specific content, or get access to your Cortana calendar and reminders through an Alexa app or device.

What’s the catch?

Well, there’s one really big one, and it’s a doozy: in order to work, these assistants need to be listening in all the time in order to respond as soon as you issue a command. That means that you have a microphone listening to everything that happens in your home every minute of every day.

Suffice it to say, the privacy policies vary from company to company, and just how much information gets stored somewhere is up for debate. But this is an undeniable reality for these devices.

Beyond the privacy concerns, these devices aren’t perfect when it comes to recognizing what you said, causing occasional confusion. They also introduce problems when someone who shouldn’t be ordering something from them accidentally does.

To wit: the President's press secretary admitted in a January tweet that her child had accidentally made purchases on her Alexa-enabled Amazon device. (Whether or not it's wise for a senior White House official to have a hot microphone in her home listening at all times, every other foreign intelligence agency in the world likely took notice.)