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Fast Fact: Digital Assistants

A digital assistant (sometimes called a “virtual assistant”) is a computer service that acts as a personal helper. Some examples of services like this are Alexa, Siri, Google Assistant, and Cortana.

Users ask questions or make requests on devices such as phones, tablets, or “smart speakers”. Smart speakers are tiny computers with microphones that “listen” all the time, waiting for instructions. Amazon’s Echo, Google’s Google Home, and Apple’s HomePod are examples of smart speakers.

Amazon's Echo Plus (left) and Google's Google Home are examples of "smart speakers".
Amazon’s Echo Plus (left) and Google’s Google Home are examples of “smart speakers”.
(Source: Mttomoki, from Wikimedia Commons.)

The services work like this: Usually, the devices have to be “woken up”, by a person saying their name or pressing a button.
Then the device records what a person says, and sends the recording to a computer far away. The computer tries to figure out what the person is asking for, and then it tries to help. For example, the person might ask the device to answer a question or to play a song.

Siri on an iPhone
Siri on an iPhone
(Source: Will Hastings, via Flickr.)

People can also use these systems to make calls, send texts, or to look at websites. Some people even use these assistants to control the lighting, heating, or alarm systems of their homes.

Almost half of the adults in the US have used an assistant like this. Most people use them through their phones. But 1 in 6 adults in the US also has a “smart speaker” in the house.



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