It could be the stuff of B-grade sci-fi: ask your personal computer to do something, and it responds in a sultry female voice — businesslike, flirty, or peeved, as the situation requires. But as the new generation of digital personal assistants demonstrates, our technology is already there. And pretty soon we may be the ones catching up. 

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As these intelligent virtual assistants integrate themselves ever more deeply into our personal and business lives, they’re reshaping both our understanding of how machines learn and how we live alongside them. Digital helpers have come a long way since the early days of the Palm and Blackberry, which were simply handheld mini-computers capable of consolidating functions like calendars, contact lists, and reminders.

Today, devices such as Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Echo, and Microsoft’s Cortana are not just simple schedulers, but “intelligent virtual assistants” able to listen, talk, and make decisions on our behalf. These tools slide smoothly into users’ lives, offering convenience and keeping homes secure. The Amazon Echo, for example, manages home alarm systems (more details here and here) and other functions, as well as offering instant Internet access through its assistant, “Alexa,” who responds whenever she hears her name and offers reproaches whenever she hears something rude.

With friendly voices and round-the-clock connectivity, these devices are the hub of a user’s digital “ecosystem,” capable of managing home functions like turning off lights and adjusting thermostats, answering questions, and interfacing with the Internet. Digital assistants like the Echo and Cortana aim to become an integral part of our lives, ever present and ever helpful.

They’re smart, they’re attentive, and as their designers intended, they could almost elevate beyond the uncanny valley. Although these systems can be reduced to lines of code and pieces of hardware, users fall easily into seeing them as human. Chatty and conversational, they’re like a helpful and nonthreatening friend you don’t mind having in your home. But even as they promise convenience, they also, quite subtly, take charge.

Ask Alexa a question, and the Echo bot answers with pre-programmed information. Look it up yourself, and you’ll get a far wider selection of answers to choose from. Make a choice, and Siri offers you more options based on that choice. Mention a keyword and you’re immediately offered products and services from the manufacturer’s apps and partners.

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Are these digital assistants really nothing more than a convenient tool or are they changing the relationship between humans and machines in profound ways? Echo, Siri, and the others are leading the way for a new wave of virtual helpers all too willing to serve as portals (or perhaps gatekeepers) between individuals and the wider world of the Internet.

As these interfaces become more “human,” people become more willing to trust them and make them an essential part of life. But it’s easy to forget that relying on virtual assistants also means surrendering choice and control to a device designed to serve the interests of its developers. Going shopping with Alexa? You’ll be shopping at Amazon, which owns Echo, unless you make a deliberate effort to go elsewhere. Ask a question, and your answer will come from the device’s programmed database.

Nevertheless, these personal assistants have flooded into the market and consumers are picking them up left and right. Their secret to success isn’t just the appeal of science fiction turned reality. It is the convenience and personable nature of these devices that attracts tech geeks and novices alike. With people turning to the digital world for personal assistance, there is no telling what the future may hold for the integration of artificial intelligence and everyday life.


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