What are virtual assistants

Who I am
Alejandra Rangel
@alejandrarangel
What are virtual assistants

And how they are coming into our lives

Un virtual assistant is an application capable of understanding voice commands and completing certain operations on behalf of a user.





Virtual assistants are available on most smartphones and tablets, traditional computers, and are now also becoming popular as standalone devices such as Amazon Echo e Google Home.

Basically, they are made of a combination of specialized chips, microphones and programs that listen to the pronunciation of specific commands and usually respond with a selectable voice.

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What virtual assistants do

The most famous virtual assistants on the market are 5 (there are also others but they are not so famous):

1) Alexa

2) Siri

3) Google Assistant

4) Cortana

5) Bixby

They can do just about anything - answer questions, tell jokes, play music, and control household items like lights, thermostats, locks, and smart home devices. They are able to answer all sorts of voice commands, send text messages, make phone calls, set reminders. Whatever you can do on your mobile, you can also ask for it to be done by the virtual assistant.

And, even better, virtual assistants can learn over time to know the habits and tastes of those who use them, becoming more and more "intelligent". Thanks to artificial intelligence, virtual assistants can understand natural language, recognize faces, identify objects and communicate with other smart devices and software.


The power of digital assistants will only grow, and it is inevitable that sooner or later we will all use one of these digital assistants (at least to try it out).


The Amazon Echo and Google Home are the top choices when it comes to smart speakers, although we expect to see more models from other brands shortly.

How to use a virtual assistant

In most cases, the virtual assistant has to "wake up" by saying his name (Hey Siri !, OK Google, Alexa). Most virtual assistants are smart enough to understand natural language, but you have to be specific.

For example, if you connect the Amazon Echo with the Uber app, Alexa may request a ride, but the command must be formulated correctly.

The virtual assistant expects voice commands but can also respond (in certain cases) to commands that are typed. For example, iPhones with iOS 11 or later can type questions (or commands) to Siri instead of talking to it. Plus, Siri can respond to text instead of voice commands if you prefer. Similarly, Google Assistant can respond to commands typed by voice or with text.

On smartphones, you can use a virtual assistant to change settings or to complete tasks such as sending a text, making a call or playing a song. Using a smart speaker you can control other smart devices such as the thermostat, lights or security system.

How virtual assistants work

Virtual assistants are basically passive listening devices that respond when they recognize a command or greeting (like "Hey Siri"). This means that the device is always listening, which could give rise to some privacy concerns.


The virtual assistant must be connected to the internet so that it can conduct web searches and find answers or communicate with other smart devices. When communicating with a virtual assistant by voice, you can activate the assistant and ask the question without pausing. If the virtual assistant does not understand the command or cannot find an answer, it will let you know, and you can try again by rephrasing the question or speaking louder or slower.


Smartphone-based virtual assistants like Siri and Google Assistant can also be activated by pressing and holding the home button on the device. You type in your question or request and Siri and Google will respond with text. Smart speakers, such as the Amazon Echo, can only respond to voice commands.

The most famous virtual assistants

Alexa is the virtual assistant of Amazon, and is available in the Amazon Echo line of smart speakers, as well as those from brands like Sonos and Ultimate Ears. Alexa can be asked to play a song, make a phone call, and control smart home devices as you would most virtual assistants. Very interesting is the "multi-room music" feature that allows you to play the same music from each of the Echo speakers.

Samsung, on the other hand, has entered the virtual assistants arena with Bixby, compatible with Samsung smartphones running on Android Nougat 7.9 or later. Like Alexa, Bixby also responds to voice commands. It can provide reminders of upcoming events, can be used with the camera to shop, get a translation, scan QR codes and identify a place. Bixby can control most device settings and can mirror mobile content to most Samsung Smart TVs.

Cortana is Microsoft's digital virtual assistant that comes with Windows 10. And also separately downloadable for both Android and Apple devices. Microsoft has partnered with Harman Kardon to release a smart speaker. Cortana uses the Bing search engine to answer simple queries, and can set reminders and respond to voice commands.

Google Assistant it is incorporated into the Google Pixel series smartphones, the Google Home smart speaker and some speakers from brands such as JBL. You can also interact with Google Assistant on your smartwatch, notebook and TV, as well as in the Google Allo instant messaging app (available for Android and iOS). Not only specific voice commands can be used, but also conversation tones. Google Assistant interacts with a myriad of smart home apps and devices.

Finally Crab, probably the best known virtual assistant, given birth by Apple. Works on iPhones, iPads, iMacs, Apple watch, Apple TV, and on HomePod, the company's smart smart speaker. The default voice is female, but you can change it to male, and change the language to Spanish, Chinese, French and some others. It is also possible to teach him to pronounce names correctly. When you dictate it, you can say the punctuation and edit the message if Siri doesn't interpret it correctly. Natural language can be used for commands.

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