The virtual voice assistant is an emerging technology, reshaping how people engage with the world and transforming digital experiences. It is one of the recent outcomes of rapid advancements in artificial intelligence (AI), Natural Language Processing (NLP), cloud computing, and the Internet of Things (IoT).
A virtual voice assistant is a software agent that can interpret human speech and respond via synthesized voices. It communicates with the users in natural language. The most popular voice assistants are Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, Microsoft’s Cortana, and Google’s Assistant, incorporated in smartphones and dedicated home speakers.
Voice assistants use technologies like voice recognition, speech synthesis, and NLP to provide services to the users. Voice recognition is the heart of a voice application and is a rapidly evolving technology that provides an alternative to keyboard typing. Voice recognition is an important component for the user as a gateway to use his or her voice as an input component. It is expected to become the default input form for smartphones and cars, and other home appliances.
What can voice assistants do?
Some key elements distinguish voice assistants from ordinary programs. First, it has NLP, an ability to understand and process human languages by filling the gaps in communication between humans and machines. Second, it can use stored information and data and use it to draw new conclusions. Third, it is powered by machine learning that allows one to adapt to new things by identifying patterns.
Voice assistants have several interesting capabilities. They allow users to ask questions, control home automation devices, media playback and manage other basic tasks like email, to-do lists, and calendars with verbal commands.
There are a wide variety of services provided by the voice-enabled devices, ranging from simple commands like providing information about the weather of a place, general information from Wikipedia, movie rating from IMDB, setting the alarm or reminder, creating a to-do list, and adding items to the shopping list so that we don’t forget when we go shopping. Depending on the device provider or user preference, it can also read books for the user or play music from any streaming service. It can also play videos from YouTube or else from any streaming service.
In a recent study, voice assistants are also being used to assist public interactions with the Government, and a decrease of 30% work-load on humans when voice assistants are used in call centers. Although each currently available voice assistant has unique features, they share some similarities and can perform the following basic tasks:
- Answer to questions asked by users.
- Send and read text messages
- Make phone calls, and send and read email messages.
- Play music from streaming music services such as Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Pandora, Netflix, and Spotify.
- Set reminders, timers, alarms, and calendar entries
- Make lists, and do basic math calculations.
- Play games.
- Make purchases.
- Provide information about the weather.
- Control Internet-of-Things-enabled smart devices such as thermostats, lights, locks, vacuum cleaners, switches).
While voice assistants have interesting and useful features, they also pose several unique problems. One main issue with these voice-activated devices is security. Anyone with access to a voice-activated device can ask it questions, gather information about the accounts and services associated with the device. This poses a major security risk since the devices will read out calendar contents, emails, and highly personal information.
Voice assistants are also vulnerable to several other attacks. Researchers have recently proven that voice assistants will respond to inaudible commands delivered at ultrasonic frequencies. This would allow an attacker to approach a victim, play the ultrasonic command, and the victim’s device would respond.
Privacy is another big concern for voice assistant users. By their very nature, these devices must be listening at all times to respond to users. Amazon, Apple, Google, and Microsoft insist that their devices are not recording unless users speak the command to wake the assistant. Still, there has been at least one case where a malfunctioning device was recording at all times and sending those recordings back to Google’s servers. Even if the companies developing these voice assistants are being careful and conscientious, there is a potential for data to be stolen, leaked, or used to incriminate people.