Virtual assistants – Use cases and security concerns

Virtual assistants

Traditionally, if you have to get some information over the internet, you would need a desktop/laptop/mobile device with an internet connection; manually go to Google and search for what you need to get results. This process is a little time-consuming.

Virtual assistant technology lets you perform tasks or access services through your voice commands over a mobile or desktop. A Voice assistant is a software agent who reacts to a command received from the user and gives back the relevant information in response to his inquiry.

Voice assistance gives users hands-free access to various functions as they only interact with voice. Voice assistance can be used to remove the language barrier while interacting with information on the web.

Voice user interfaces, powered by virtual assistants, are currently ubiquitous in automobiles, computer operating systems, home automation systems, home appliances such as washing machines and microwave ovens, and television remote controls.

Voice assistants such as Google Assistant and Alexa have become household names. Many tasks, such as creating a reminder for any particular date and adding items to a shopping list, can be done with a simple voice command. Although voice recognition technologies have been introduced since the 1960s, some more advanced voice or virtual assistants have been introduced only in the last decade.

Use cases of Virtual Assistants

  • Task Automation: Virtual Assistants can be used to automate processes in medical labs where everyone is required to gloves and bodysuits to prevent contamination. It can also be used to set reminders for future events or appointments. Many household devices have become intelligent such as smart TV, smart AC, smart lighting, smart Fridge, and much more. All these devices can be easily controlled with a virtual assistant.
  • Reduce Screen Time: Virtual Assistants allows the users to perform various tasks hands-free and without even interacting with a device screen. Some of the functions that can be achieved are making a call to someone, opening apps on your phone, reading out messages and emails verbally instead of reading them, finding local shops and businesses of your interest, speaking out messages or emails, and converting it to text instead of manually typing it, creating and maintaining a to-do list, stream music, get sports scores, get weather updates and many more such tasks can be performed without even a need for a physical device.
  • Provide Aid to the Visually Impaired: Virtual Assistants are hands-free technology and don’t require the user to physically interact with the interface it can be used as a guide to visually impaired people. It can fully utilize the most valuable features of a phone to the visually impaired person, such as tracking GPS location, automatically reading out messages along phone number or name of the sender, the time and date, reading out system information like battery level, and much more.
  • Remove Language Barrier: With Virtual Assistants, companies can overcome language barriers and easily do business with a user base that speaks a different language. Virtual Assistants like Alexa and Google Assistant already provide support for multiple languages. Also, language translation technologies are usually free of cost and can be easily integrated with any service. In 2019 Google launched the interpreter mode, which enables two users to communicate in a different language with real-time translation. As of now, this feature supports about 27 languages, with a plan to include more languages in the future.
  • Predictive Analysis: Virtual Assistants can analyze user interactions and patterns and suggest related things according to the history of interactions to provide a more personalized experience. Organizations that offer services through voice assistants can use the assistant to analyze historical user data and suggest changes accordingly to increase profits using this data.
  • Support for eCommerce: In a large organization, providing customer support to a large customer base can sometimes become very expensive and unfeasible. Using Virtual Assistants, you can automate tasks such as taking user queries and customer feedback. As interactions are more conversational than graphical, it provides the user with a more engaging experience. Also, unlike humans, a Virtual Assistant would never take a break; hence can be available to users throughout the day.

Limitations and security concerns

Virtual Assistant Technology is becoming more and more sophisticated every day. But this doesn’t mean that they will replace humans altogether. The number of Virtual Assistant users increases daily; some concerns are being raised about the Security and Privacy of the users.

  • Privacy concern: When a user gives a command to the Virtual Assistant. The voice command is recorded and sent to the server for further processing. So ideally, every Virtual Assistant has a wake work which, when spoken, activates the assistant. For Google Assistant, it’s “Ok, Google,” For Alexa, it is simply “Alexa.” When the wake word is spoken, the assistant starts the conversation and the recording. A common misconception is that the Virtual Assistant continuously records the user’s speech throughout the day. But a Virtual Assistant is always listening for the wake word, meaning it can only start recording the speech after it hears it. It does not record anything spoken before the wake word. Also, every Virtual Assistant has an exit-intent activated if there is a long period of inactivity during an assistant conversation; the assistant will exit the conversation rather than keep listening.
  • Security Concern: Virtual Assistants like Google Assistant only store user data with the user’s permission. These audio files, permitted by the user, are sent to the cloud and used by Google to improve the performance of Google Assistant. The voice commands provided by users are available to the Virtual Assistant providers in an unencrypted format. Hence there is a concern that the provider could share those commands with any unauthorized third party. Those voice commands may contain sensitive information about the user like Biometric Identity, personal details like passport number or phone number, location, medical history, and search patterns. Some voice commands can be directly embedded into music, advertisements, or other familiar sounds inaudible to the human ear. These embedded commands can wake the Virtual Assistant and perform specific malicious actions like sending messages, opening malicious websites, and even transferring money without the user noticing.