Virtual Assistants and Smart Speakers

Virtual assistants, also known as Smart Speakers or A.I. Assistants, are accessible on the go on your mobile devices (smartphones and tablets) as well as in your home in the form of smart speakers. Smart speakers are wireless speakers with an integrated virtual assistant that can complete tasks hands free. Virtual assistants require an internet connection to function. Mobile device assistants can use either Wi-Fi or the device’s data connection. Smart speakers require a Wi-Fi connection. Smart speakers typically require an app installed on a mobile device for set-up.

Who are these magical assistants who are ready to help us with just a mention of their name?

  •  Siri is the virtual assistant from Apple. It can be used on iPads, iPhones, and Mac computers, as well as the HomePod smart speaker.
  • Alexa is the virtual assistant from Amazon. It can be used on Echo smart speaker devices and many other third-party devices.
  • Google Assistant is the virtual assistant from Google. It can be used on some Android mobile devices and Google Home (now called Google Nest) smart speakers.
  • Cortana is the virtual assistant from Microsoft. It is included on Windows 10 computers and the Harman Kardon INVOKE smart speaker and can be installed on iPhone and Android devices
  • Bixby is the virtual assistant from Samsung. It can be used on newer Samsung smartphones and the Galaxy Home smart speaker.

You’re probably asking yourself, “what do smart speakers do and how do they work?” A virtual assistant or smart speakers can answer questions, set timers, reminders and alarms, as well as controlling any other smart devices in your home such as adjusting your thermostat or locking the front door. If that isn’t enough, they will also play your favorite radio station, playlist, or podcast. They can also read audiobooks or play videos, TV shows, or movies on televisions. They can provide you with news updates and weather forecasts and other information found online. Some assistants, such as Google Nest and Apple HomePod, can be set up to call 911 for you in an emergency.

Smart Speakers work by always being on and “listening” and then become active by a “wake word”.  This may be something like “Okay Google” or saying the assistant’s name like “Alexa.” Give the “wake word” and then the request will get you the result you are looking for. An example would be to say “Alexa do I need an umbrella today?”  Alexa would respond with something like “No, it’s not expected to rain in Cleveland Heights today. It’ll be sunny, with a forecasted high of 75 and a low of 60.” All these devices work on Speech Recognition. The device recognizes your speech pattern and what it is you are saying.  This works fine for most people but with people with speech issues it may be a problem.  Many of the newest smart speakers are now bilingual or have a Multilingual mode so that if English is not the user’s first language, they can still use a smart speaker.

Most smart speakers can integrate with other smart home devices such as a smart door lock, smart thermostat, or even your smart refrigerator. This is programmed through your device’s app that you load on your smart phone or tablet that allows you to interconnect the devices. Then you can say “Alexa, lock the front door” and your smart lock will turn the lock for you without having to raise a finger. Most major automobile manufacturers are now incorporating Amazon Alexa into their vehicles.

There are some concerns about smart speakers and their security.  Some people have asked, “should I equip my bedroom or living room with an internet-connected microphone that could record and send all my conversations to the data-hungry server of a giant tech company or to a random person in my contact list?” Well, that is basically the privacy and security risk you’re taking when you bring home an Amazon Echo, Google Home, or other smart speaker.

We stated before that smart speakers become activated with a “wake word.” After hearing the wake word, the smart speaker starts analyzing whatever comes after it. But to catch the wake word, smart speakers have to keep their microphone active at all time, which is why they call them “always listening” devices. This has raised concerns about Amazon and Google listening to and storing all your conversations, especially after stories surfaced in which Alexa recorded and shared users’ voices without being order to do so. However, while smart speakers’ “always listening” mode is a privacy issue, it’s often exaggerated.

Echo and Google Home must send conversations to their cloud servers because the AI algorithms that analyze and process voice commands require processing capabilities that the devices don’t possess. The device doesn’t send anything to the cloud before the wake word triggers it. In fact, Google and Amazon would be overwhelmed with useless data if they were recording their smart speakers all day long. The main security concern on smart speakers is not what it’s hearing you say, but the risks of the tasks it can perform like unlocking your smart door lock.

What this means is that anyone who’s within the hearing range of your smart speaker will be able to send it commands to perform functions. All they need to do is say the magic word like what if your smart speaker was close enough to the window for someone from outside to order it to unlock the door?

Both Alexa and Google Nest have also shown that a person doesn’t necessarily need to be within their vicinity to activate them. Smart speakers will take command from any device that can play an audio file that says the wake word. Burger King ran a TV commercial that asked Google to explain what a Whopper is. Tests showed that when a Google Nest device was next to the device that played the commercial, it would start describing the whopper.

Beyond accidents however, there are real security implications for the remote activation of smart speakers. Given the number of functions that the devices can perform, there are many ways this functionality can be put to evil use, such as unlocking doors, making money transfers, and more.

Smart speakers usually have settings that add security checks to functions such as shopping. They also have settings that link profiles and functions to specific voices. Users who care for their security should activate those settings or avoid using smart speakers for critical tasks altogether. For more information on keeping your smart speaker safe, check out this article from Norton.

The bottom line is, your smart speaker can do a lot of things for you and can be an asset in your home. They are as safe as your smart phone, tablet, laptop, and PC. The only way to be 100% secure is to live in your house like it’s 1960, and who wants to do that?  If you would like more information on Virtual Assistants and Smart Speaker join our Heights Libraries Tech Trainer Ann on Wednesday, November 18th at 4 p.m. via Facebook Live for our Tech Talk on Virtual Assistants.

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