Artificial intelligence assistants are typically cloud-based programs that require internet-connected devices and/or applications to work. Three such applications are Siri on Apple devices, Cortana on Microsoft Devices and Google Assistant on Android devices.
There are also devices dedicated to providing virtual assistance. The most popular ones are available from Amazon, Google and Microsoft. To use the Amazon Echo virtual assistant, called Alexa, users call out the wake word, “Alexa.” A light on the device signals to the user it is ready to receive a command, which typically involves simple language requests, such as “what is the weather today,” or “play pop music.” Those requests are processed and stored in Amazon’s cloud.
The technologies that power virtual assistants require massive amounts of data, which feeds artificial intelligence (AI) platforms, including machine learning, natural language processing and speech recognition platforms.
As the end user interacts with a virtual assistant, the AI programming uses sophisticated algorithm to learn from data input and become better at predicting the end user’s needs.
Virtual assistants typically perform simple jobs for end users, such as adding tasks to a calendar; providing information that would normally be searched in a web browser; or controlling and checking the status of smart homes devices, including lights, cameras and thermostats.
Users also task virtual assistants to make and receive phone calls, create text messages, get directions, hear news and weather reports, find hotels or restaurants, check flight reservations, hear music, or play games.
Some consumers have expressed privacy concerns about virtual assistants, such as Amazon Alexa and Google Home, because these virtual assistants require large amounts of personal data and are always “listening” in order to respond to voice commands. Virtual assistants then retain voice interactions and personal information to improve the user experience.
Cortana, for example, works best by using data from a user’s device, including emails and other communications, a user’s contacts, location data, search history, and data from other Microsoft services and skills third party applications that users choose to connect with.
Users can choose not to sign in and share this data with Cortana, and adjust permissions to prevent certain data from being collected, though these actions limit the virtual assistant’s usefulness.
Virtual assistant providers also maintain privacy policies, which define how each company uses and shares personal information. In most cases, companies do not share customer-identifiable information without a customer’s consent.