Alexa, Are You Listening? Digital Home Personal Assistants That Can Make Your Life Easier
Speakers with voice-controlled assistants – like Alexa and Google Home are all the rage. Sales numbers for the Echo family and the Google Home devices are not released by Amazon or Google.
However, Alexa was the number one downloaded app in the Apple App Store on Christmas day. The Google Home app was number two in the Android app store and six in the Apple app store.
Voice-activated smart speakers are popping up in households all over the world, and people are quickly incorporating them into daily life in a wide variety of ways.
According to Google research, the top reasons people are using voice-activated speakers are:
- Easier multitasking;
- Getting things done faster;
- Retrieving answers and information instantly;
- It makes their daily routine easier.
Understanding Specific Voice Assistant Skills
As of today, the two main players with voice-activated assistants are Amazon’s Alexa and Google Home. They both are solid choices, but this article will focus on Amazon’s Alexa since it currently has a significantly larger market share than the Google Home.
Apple’s entry into this market, the HomePod, is rumored to be released in February/March 2018. It may have an impact in this arena as well, if it lives up to expectations based upon demonstrations conducted at WWDC in June 2017.
Amazon’s Alexa has a list of more than 15,000 ‘skills’ (voice-command generated actions) that continues to grow. These skills range from reading recipes to providing daily five-minute workouts.
While some of the of the abilities may seem trivial and silly, many can be useful in our daily routine – and entertaining.
Getting Alexa’s Attention – Say the Magic Word
To activate the voice assistant, just say the ‘wake’ word – Alexa, Amazon, Echo or Computer, depending on what you set your device to – and tell it what you want. Some skills are included by default.
You can download additional actions using the Skills section of the Alexa app or by using the Alexa skills website on Amazon.
Some of the most popular skills are:
“Alexa, play jazz music.”
The speaker can access Amazon Prime music, as well as many streaming music services including Spotify, iHeartRadio, Pandora, and SiriusXM, to play a favorite genre on your device.
You must link your music streaming account within the Alexa app. Settings controls allow you to specify the default music service or to call out which one you want to hear.
“Alexa, find my phone.”
Lost your phone and don’t have anyone to call it to help you find it? Alexa can help with that.
“Alexa, add carrots to my shopping list.”
You can create a weekly shopping list while cooking dinner. Using shopping lists is particularly useful when there are multiple people in the household since anyone can tell Alexa to add an item to the list.
There is also a to-do list that works the same way.
“Alexa, set a reminder for me to take my medication at 8:00 AM every day.”
Alarms and reminders are extra handy uses of these devices.
“Alexa, give me my flash briefing.”
Alexa can provide you a quick overview of what is going on in the world with Flash Briefings. Under Settings, you can choose what news source you want your briefings from, such as BBC News, CNN, Huffington Post or People Magazine.
“Alexa, what is the weather going to be today?”
Alexa has built-in weather functionality that provides your local weather or weather for any specific location you ask. Other third-party weather skills can provide more detailed information, such as what to wear based on the current climate.
“Alexa, read the Kindle book Harry Potter”
Alexa can read Kindle books to you that support Text-to-Speech technology. To find what books you have in your Kindle library that Alexa can read, go to Kindle under Music, Video and Books in the menu section.
Take It One ‘Skill’ at a Time
With over 15,000 skills to take advantage of, it can be overwhelming to use one of these voice-activated assistants. Learning is a process! You don’t have to use everything at once.
Make a goal to use a new skill every week. Alexa does a great job helping users learn new things. Just go to the app and click on Things to Try in the menu.
Once you have mastered the basics, there are more advanced uses you can benefit from, such as ordering items directly from Amazon.
Also, there are many smart home integrations including turning on and off lights with Philips Hue, home security with Nest and cleaning with Roomba. The options are endless!
Are Digital Assistants Safe?
Digital assistants have microphones that are always on to enable an immediate. This raises concerns for some that their private conversations are monitored and recorded.
Conversations captured through these types of speakers are encrypted to prevent third-party access. Amazon and Google claim they use the information solely to better respond to commands.
On the flip side, they already can collect marketing information based on your use of the device, so why the need to record or monitor conversations? However, this isn’t much different than what is collected every time you search using Google or other search engines.
Most people are willing to ignore these potential privacy intrusions for the sake of the convenience a digital home assistant provides.
Any device connected to the Internet has vulnerabilities, but digital assistants don’t pose any more of a threat then your smartphone. The key is to be… smart.
Use complex passwords on your account and all connected accounts. Complex means not using full words like your dog’s name or your street address. The password Fido123 doesn’t cut it! This is a must for any internet-based account.
Utilize the voice recognition functionality that both Alexa and Google Home have. While it’s not foolproof, it will help in securing purchases made with the devices.
Use Only the Necessary
Only connect accounts and skills you need to. If you aren’t going to use it for your calendar, then don’t enable it.
Make sure you regularly review your privacy settings. It’s important to keep your applications and devices as protected as possible.
Speakers with voice-assistants are a new technology that has become mainstream. Now is the time to begin to incorporate one into some part of your day. Just as the smartphone did, it will likely change the way we live our lives. So, embrace it and have fun with it.
Do you have an Amazon Echo, Dot or Google Home? If so, what are some of the most beneficial uses? What are the most entertaining uses? What drives you nuts about it? We would love to hear your thoughts and experience about learning how to use them. Please join the conversation below.
Judi Jacobs is a lawyer-turned-tech nerd and the founder of The Tech Wizard. As a tech coach and consultant, Judi works with adults 50+ and small businesses to help make technology more user-friendly through small group classes and one-on-one training. Learn more at TheTechWizard.com.