• Virtual assistants are becoming a must-have item
  • They could save you time and cash, and improve security
  • Any security risks need to be considered and avoided

What are virtual assistants?

Virtual assistants are voice-controlled helpers, usually found in smart speakers. Examples of these include Google Home and Amazon’s Alexa, which powers its Echo and Dot speakers, as well as the incoming Apple HomePod.

The Apple HomePod sitting on a white shelf, with a plant to the right and a stack of books to the left

Voice commands are used to prompt different activities, from delivering news reports and playing music, to setting timers and checking train times. As well as saving you time, they could also save you money by keeping your house energy efficient and secure, meaning fewer claims on your home insurance.

In the first quarter of 2017 alone, 3.4 million smart speakers were sold globally, according to analysts Futuresource Consulting. A whopping 24.5 million of these next-gen gadgets are predicted to be sold by the end of the year, according to a report from voice software company VoiceLabs.

While these virtual assistants, electronic home assistants or voice personal assistants (VPAs), are currently found mainly in smart speakers and mobile phones, the technology is gradually branching out to other devices including cars.

‘We’re not just talking about providing a new voice interface for consumers,’ said Simon Bryant, associate director at Futuresource Consulting, in a recent report. ‘VPAs are poised to become the new, primary interface for all consumer electronics devices across the board’.

So should you consider buying a virtual assistant? Tech journalist Libby Plummer (@LibbyPlummer‏) reveals some of the pros and cons.

Pros

1. Keep your home safe

You can connect your virtual assistant to your smart home security devices to make it easier to keep your property safe. For example, you can connect the Blink security camera system to any Amazon Alexa device and once the Blink ‘skill’ is enabled on your Alexa app you can give voice commands such as ‘Alexa, ask Blink to arm my home security system’.

A black Blink security camera sat on a wooden desk. There is an Amazon Alexa device to the left of the Blink product and a plant pot to the right

2. Save money on your energy bills

Virtual assistants can control smart home devices, including next-gen lighting options. You could hook up a smart thermostat such as the Nest to Google Home or Alexa and tell your VPA when you’re leaving the house, so that your heating gets turned off. Tests carried out by Nest suggest that UK users can reduce their energy usage by as much 16.5 per cent, saving cash in the long run.

3. Save money on flights

You might just be able to nab yourself a bargain holiday by asking your smart speaker. For example, asking Google Home, ‘OK Google, how much are flights to New York?’ will prompt the speaker to ask a few follow-up questions about your preferences, after which you’ll receive an email about prices from Google Flights. Alexa-powered devices, meanwhile, can be used to search for bargains using travel search engine SkyScanner. 

4. Save money on your Uber

Once you’ve set your default pick-up location, you can hail a cab from home by simply saying ‘Alexa, ask Uber for a ride’. Alexa will let you know how far away the nearest car is, and you can change your pick-up location if you need to. What’s more, it’ll let you know if there’s surge pricing before you book your ride, helping you to get the best price possible.

Cons

1. Initial cost could outweigh savings

While it’s possible to make both time and cash savings using these virtual assistant devices, they don’t always come cheap. The Amazon Echo comes with a price tag of £149.99, while the Google Home is slightly cheaper at £129.

However, Apple’s HomePod, which is expected to land by the end of the year, will be much pricier, with an expected price of £349. The Amazon Echo Dot is the cheapest of the bunch at £49.99.

2. Security could be an issue

‘Even if Amazon doesn't do anything questionable with your Echo interactions, it does store them in the cloud, which isn't totally hacker-proof,’ warns David Emm (@emm_david), principal security researcher at Kaspersky Lab (@kaspersky‏).

He also emphasises the importance of making sure your home WiFi network is secure by using strong passwords and regularly checking for and installing software updates. Also, smart speaker makers install software onto their devices to make them secure, such as voice command encryption before they’re transferred to the cloud.

3. Voice recognition isn’t perfect

Voice recognition has come a long way in recent years, and Amazon and Google’s tech is among the best so far. However, it’s still not perfect, and you might find that you still have to occasionally repeat yourself to make the smart speaker understand your command.

The good news is that the AI-based voice assistants learn and adapt to your voice as you go along.

4. A microphone in your home

The always-on speakers don’t record or send your voice commands until you use the wake word (such as ‘Alexa….’). But if having a microphone constantly listening bothers you, it can be easily turned off for privacy.

An Amazon Alexa on a kitchen table. On the table is a white mug and a box of blueberrys

What’s more, a record of each voice command can be easily reviewed and deleted. And while voice control can make ordering goods from the internet a lot easier, it’s wise to set a PIN to confirm any purchases. It’s also possible to turn off voice ordering all together – if the kids are home alone, for example.

Virtual assistants can save you valuable time and money, as well as help keep your home secure, but it’s important to use common sense when it comes to cyber security, as you would with any other web-connected device.