Back to Blog

AI Powered Digital Assistants

February 21st, 2018

The purpose of virtual assistants are to carry out tasks based off the voice commands of the user. Virtual assistants function through natural language processing (NLP), which translates the voice input of the user into a format that the virtual assistant can understand and therefore carry out any requests. Since devices are required to have an internet connection to access a majority of services offered by virtual assistants, they are connected to the companies’ database and various third-party services which retrieve information based on what the user requests. My computational artifact shows a device known as Amazon Echo which houses a virtual assistant called Alexa, and illustrates the steps that both the hardware and software components that the Amazon Echo undergoes when you request something.

One of the beneficial effects that virtual assistants have is on the safety of society. Virtual assistants have revolutionized tasks that previously required your physical action such as manually inputting commands on Google Maps to get directions. (4) With virtual assistants, technology such as iPhone’s Siri is able to find directions with just the command of your voice. The driver is able to keep both their eyes and hands on the wheel while using just their voice to multitask finding directions or calling friends, making it safer to drive. One harmful effect that virtual assistants have is on certain businesses and jobs in the economy. As the functions that Virtual Assistants are capable of increase every day, various jobs in the marketplace as well as utilities are rendered useless. (2) For example, Virtual Assistants are able to replace personal assistants in the workplace, as it is able to do all the things those assistants do such as send faxes, record notes, set reminders, but more efficiently and cheaper. The functions of light switches, thermostats, and other devices can all be housed in Virtual Assistants and be controlled using the sound of your voice. With society prioritizing cost and efficiency, Virtual Assistants have become the perfect option for consumers, replacing specific occupations and technology in the economy.

The data that Virtual Assistants use are based around the voice commands of the user talking to the device, and the Virtual Assistant responding back. The function inputs data by collecting audio of your request to the device, and saving it into a data file that is sent to the companies’ servers. Programs such as Automatic Speech Recognition transform the data from the audio to text through the analog waves in your voice. (3) After transforming the audio files into text, another program called Natural Language Processing helps the computers analyze and understand the human language through a series of algorithms. After the text file is transformed into a format understandable to the computer, the response is filtered into a program called Natural Language Processing which summarizes the text into its simplest form. Lastly, it undergoes another program called Text-to-Speech where the data is transformed from text to speech which is outputted through the speakers of the device. (5) One data privacy concern that arise from Virtual Assistants is the companies’ ability to record audio clips of what you say to it and sends it to the company's servers which are then saved.These files face a concern of being stolen and used by hackers or even corporations for things such as targeted advertising or malicious actions such as blackmail using your personal information.


1., Valentina Palladino, “Guidemaster: Everything Amazon’s Alexa Can Do Plus the Best Skills to Enable,” source: arsTechnica, date viewed: Feb 28, 2018

2., Ellis Soodak, “Alexa, Will Automation Destroy My Job?,” source: Medium, date viewed: Feb 28, 2018

3., Jason Brownlee, “What is Natural Language Processing,” source: Machine Learning Mastery, date viewed: Feb 28, 2018

4., Mike Tanasychuk, “How to Use Siri to Get Directions and Maps on iPhone and iPad,” source: iMore, date viewed: Feb 28, 2018

5., Unknown, “Can Alexa Record Audio? The Amazon Alexa Breakdown,” source: Protect America, date viewed: Feb 28, 2018