Virtual Assistants, Smart Devices and Smart Homes

A virtual assistant (in this context, a computer program that acts for a user) can perform tasks or services for an individual, based on commands or questions – Usually these instructions and commands are prefixed by a wake word, such as Hey Google, followed by the instruction. Initially you had to prefix each action by using the wake word, but now these devices are able to handle continuous conversations.

An example of a continuous conversation might be “Hi Google, what’s the weather forecast today?”, the device answers then continues to listen for a short period in case there is a follow up – “What is the forecast for tomorrow?”. Note that for the follow up you don’t need the wake word.

I can get in my car, tell the assistant to play music (radio station, group or genre, listen to a podcast and navigate to a destination. All without touching the phone. 

Users can ask their assistants questions, control home automation devices and media playback via voice, and manage other basic tasks such as email, to-do lists, and calendars with verbal (spoken?) commands. This ability is being expanded all the time – For example the Google Assistant is gaining the ability to make telephone bookings, and if you wish can monitor incoming calls to block out known spam callers.

There are a number of different assistants available. The main ones are:

  • Amazon’s Alexa
  • Apple’s Siri
  • Google Assistant

Assistants can work independently or in conjunction with what are known as Smart Devices (example of which are smart thermostats, smart doorbells, smart lights and smart cameras). Join the two technologies together, add in broadband or WiFi and you have a smart home. Smart homes can be controlled from virtually anywhere in the world, providing you have a data/WiFi connection to your device. 

Smart Homes can be pre-programmed to monitor themselves, turning on the hot water if the pipes get too cold, turning on the heating and\or a light when the app on your smartphone detects, by using GPS, it’s near home. In this way the Smart Home is acting to pre-determined parameters set by you, or the engineer that programmed it.

Many modern TVs have a smart assistant built in (either in the remote or the TV itself), that allows you to control the TV by voice

Privacy is a concern with these devices. The companies that run them have strict policies in place on the use of your information. There have been some instances where conversations have been overheard and the device has reacted because it though it heard a wake word. You can intervene and use the individual devices wake word and say that wasn’t for you and the device will delete what it heard.

It should be remembered though, to be efficient the device does have to listen out for you. My own experience of a device inadvertently thinking I had issued a question are quite few, may be once or twice a month on average.

If you are concerned about your privacy, you can contact the company concerned to get your history deleted. Additionally, smart speakers have a button or switch to stop the assistant listening to you, which is useful but if this is off the device will, of course, cease responding to commands until you reverse this action.

There are many providers of smart devices. They can adjust heating, lighting, lock the door, open the garage door or operate a smart plug. 

It’s very important to ensure that the smart device you buy, works with your smart assistant as many only work, with one or two.

Smart devices need to be connected to your home broadband, usually using WiFi. The connection is made using an app provided by the manufacturer, setup instructions are provided by the manufacturer.

If you want to link the smart device to your smart assistant, then you need to add it using the smart assistant’s app on your device. Usually the app will have a wizard (simply a guided walkthrough to link your device).

As time progresses the possible uses of these devices will increase massively. Just remember you are still in control.