Virtual Assistants

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History of Voice Assistants by

Virtual Assistants are artificial intelligence systems that perform human-like tasks for users, similar to a personal assistant [1]. Some of the popular voice assistants include Apple's Siri, Amazon Alexa, Microsoft's Cortana, and Google Home. The way these assistants are designed can purposely deter users from conversations over sensitive topics, easily deceive people if human-like voices are used in virtual assistants that are interactive, and threaten the owner's privacy if it is that voice assistants are constantly listening.

What Voice Assistants Can Do

Every voice assistant technology has its own unique features, however, many of them share basic tasks that they are able to perform:

  • sending text messages and reading received text messages
  • making phone calls
  • sending email messages and reading received email messages
  • answer basic informational questions like "What is the temperature outside?" and "What time is it?"
  • set timers, alarms and calendar entries
  • make lists and set reminders
  • make basic math calculations
  • tell jokes and stories
  • control media playback from connected services such as Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Pandora, Netflix, and Spotify
  • control Internet-of-Things-enabled devices such as lights, alarms, thermostats and locks


History of Voice Assistant

The first Voice Assistant can be traced back to the 1960s when IBM introduced the Shoebox, which demonstrated speech recognition and served as a voice-activated calculator [3]. IBM continues to work on voice recognition tools, and in 2011 integrated intelligence with voice recognition to have their machine IBM Watson win Jeopardy. Following IBM Watson's win, voice recognition software turned to address the needs of the user when Apple and Google integrated smart assistants capable of natural language processing into everyday devices like the iPhone and Google Pixel. Shortly after, Amazon entered the voice assistant market by introducing Alexa and the Amazon Echo. Since voice assistants have entered the consumer market, the line of products and devices smart assistants like Alexa, Google, and Siri are available on has expanded.

Popular Voice Assistants

Amazon Alexa

Often known as Alexa, the Alexa Voice System is a virtual assistant created by Amazon. It works on many different Amazon devices, such as Amazon Echo, the Echo Dot, and Amazon Tap, among other Alexa smart home devices. Upon saying the wake word, which is "Alexa" by default, the user can give a command to which the assistant will carry out.

Some of the many tasks Amazon Alexa can do are answering questions, reading headlines from your favorite news outlets, set timers and alarms, control certain smart home devices, stream music, and relay weather or traffic information. [4] Alexa can also perform the task of placing orders on via voice control. Ethical concerns arise from this because there is no "validation" step that usually exists before someone makes a purchase. There are, however, ways to disable the ordering function altogether on your Alexa or to require confirmation codes before placing an order.

Some of the tasks that the Alexa Voice System cannot perform are distinguishing between different voices, sending audio messages, and saying swear words. [5]

In addition to the built-in functionality of Alexa, is the Smart Home Skill API which allows third-party developers to create apps called skills. Through Alexa Skills Kit, an assortment of tools for Alexa Skill Developers, individuals are able to create a variety of Alexa Skills. By February 2017 there were 10,000 skills created for Alexa. [6] A majority of these skills are related to games, news, and education, but many that have low, if any, ratings.[6]

Apple's Siri

Smart Home Voice Assistants; pictured left to right: Google Home, Amazon Echo, Apple HomePod

Siri can be used on the iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, and some of the new versions of the MacBook. To use Siri and ask it a question, you can either hit the home button on your device or say "Hey Siri" followed by your question or command. [7] Apple's website boasts that "Siri does [things for you] even before you ask",[8] which indicates many ethical implications of this technology. Entering the smart speaker market late, Apple introduced the HomePod in 2018 but focused on the quality of the sound rather than the functionality of Siri [9].

Google Home

Google Home is a device run from Google Assistant that can answer questions, follow commands, and control smart devices. Google can also distinguish voices and can, therefore, support multiple users for more personalization.[10] Google Assistant is available on a variety of devices other than just the Google Home, such as the Google Pixel, Google Home Mini, Google Home Hub, Google Home Max, and other third-party devices. In the Spring of 2018, Google unveiled improvements to their speech recognition and natural language processing in the form of Google Duplex, a smart AI assistant capable of communicating and completing tasks with other humans in a humanistic manner [11].

Third Party Partnerships

Part of what makes Google Home and Amazon's Alexa so appealing is its compatibility with other devices other than their corporate owners. These partnerships, referred to as Third Party Partnerships, allow companies who do not have the resources or means to enter the smart home market to leverage the software for Google Assistant and Alexa and integrate it into their products. For example, a Google Home is compatible with smart home device Nest, which allows users to change the temperature of their house by speaking to their Nest product through their Google Home [12]. For companies that may not have a physical product to incorporate Google Assistant or Alexa with, by partnering with Alexa they are able to create "skills", which allows them to provide their users with alternative interactions other than just web-based. For example, StubHub created their own Alexa Skill which allows users to find tickets or verify dates for concerts through their Alexa smart device [13].


In a 2016 Brian X. Chen, a technology writer for The New York Times, put together a test of 16 tasks and compared Google, Siri, Cortana, and Alexa on how well the tasks were carried out. [14] Google scored the highest, followed by Siri, Cortana, and lastly, Alexa. Chen found that Alexa was the best at tasks related to music and Siri was best at calendar and email tasks. [14] Chen also found small differences amongst the four virtual assistants as Siri could read aloud email messages, compose emails, and create calendar events, while Google could not read the email aloud and Alexa was unable to create calendar events or compose emails. [14]

Ethical Implications

Google Duplex Deceptive Misrepresentation

In the spring of 2018, Google introduced "Duplex", a technology featured aimed to help Google Assistant sound more human when interacting with users [15]. While this technology displayed a new innovative form of communication unlike what the world has seen so far, it also raised a bunch of questions surrounding ethics. Immediately following the demo of Google Duplex, critics were quick to point out that there was no indication from Google Duplex's end that they were a bot -- however, the conversational and realistic aspect of this phone call is what made this interaction so special. Whether or not Google was responsible for letting the person on the other end know that they were talking to a bot was something debated after the conference. Researcher Dr. Thomas King calls to question the ethics of Google Duplex by looking at the intent behind this new technology. While the ultimate goal of Google's Duplex is to create a better user experience, King questions whether or not you need to be deceitful and appear to be human for "better" user experience. In Harry Frankfurt's article he addresses the amount of bullshit prevalent in our lives today, and notes that the success of lies is dependent on the actor's ability to deceive us [16]. The main issue with Google's Duplex is the deceptive misrepresentation, which is what Frankfurt specifically points out to as a contribution to creating bullshit. Regardless of whether or not Google Duplex's intentions were to deceive, the way the technology is designed is in a way that is inherently deceptive as the application is meant to mimic human-like conversations. In an age where information is easily manipulated and falsified the truth becomes increasingly more important, especially in the new frontier of human and AI interactions.

Designing Voice Assistants

As our technology advances, the computers we rely on become more dependent and autonomous. This autonomy they possess is steps away from them to become moral agents. However, in order for a computer to become autonomous, a designer must come in to design the behavior of this agent. As the creator dictating the behavior of artificial agents, the designer bears an enormous amount of responsibility of how artificial agents act morally [17]. The trouble with artificial autonomous agents that are capable of learning and adapting to their environment, is that designers cannot predict every action and response of these agents to ensure that they are acting appropriately. Large companies like Amazon and Google who hold the majority of the Voice Assistant market have design documentation online to help designers navigate the ambiguity of predicting the actions of autonomous agents like Alexa and Google. By having default responses created to steer conversations away from sensitive topics like politics, religion, and sexual content, Amazon and Google help designers take a step in the right direction for designing ethical and morally responsible interactions between artificial agents and end users [18].

To train the virtual assistant to understand people the makers had to put their own input in but this can introduce biases to these virtual assistants. Some accents and even regional dialects of English are unable to be understood by some virtual assistants. The technology is most likely going to be trained on the west coast elites that built the technology which leaves people unable to technology.[19] While currently, virtual assistants are merely helpful tools, the voice recognition technology is going to be developed for many other different systems and it is important that the developers recognize this bias when designing them.


With voice assistants, there have been multiple concerns regarding privacy. For a technology like voice assistants which relies on listening to voice commands, critics have raised concerns on their smart devices listening in to their conversations. Floridi points out the pervasiveness of information flows as it slowly infiltrates our lives, and the privacy of our personal information risks being compromised [20]. Devices like voice assistants who have taken place in the homes of users and act as personal assistants, creep this line of intrusion and providing help. Regarding smart assistants, there have been speculations made over Alexa constantly listening in to personal conversations -- which leads to a bigger question of what are Amazon and Google doing with all of this data? In a report published by Bloomberg, Amazon has been advancing their algorithms through "supervised learning", which basically allows for humans to monitor and annotate the commands given by users to improve the natural language processing of Alexa [21]. However, Amazon is not the only company to use this technique to improve the functionality their voice assistants -- Google, Apple, and Facebook are also on the list of companies that listen-in to the interactions between the user and their smart devices [22]


Another main ethical issue that arises from these voice-activated devices is a lack of security. These devices function by answering questions and performing tasks for anyone who has access to a particular virtual assistant. Therefore, if someone has access to a device that does not belong to them, they would be capable of gathering information about the accounts and services associated with that device. This lack of informational friction "poses as a major security risk because these devices will read out calendar contents, emails, and other highly personal information" [23].

In one reported case, a man discovered that anyone who stood outside of his home could ask the Siri on his iPad to let them in and his iPad would them unlock the front door [24]. Because of cases like this, the companies that manage these virtual assistants have begun implementing better ethics surrounding security. "Google has recently upgraded its Assistant software to include voice printing, which uniquely identifies each user by voice and prevents the device from reading out personal information" [25]. Apple and Amazon are also both working to install similar voice printing systems.


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