What Are Digital Personal Assistants?

By Kacey Kroh, Abshier House, Abshier House

As today’s world becomes more reliant on “going digital,” your workload is becoming heavier than ever, and you might need a digital personal assistant (DPA). These DPAs come in handy by aiding in your everyday digital processes; you can tell these invisible assistants to do something within their capabilities, and they will do it.

[Credit: ©iStockphoto.com/scanrail]
Credit: ©iStockphoto.com/scanrail

To activate the digital personal assistant, just speak its name followed by a question or task. Or simply hold the home button down on the device, and the DPA will initiate the conversation by asking something similar to “What can I do for you?” or “How may I help you?”

Digital personal assistant features

Because of the rapid change in technology, no one feature can really be compared in any of the DPAs available. Some tasks you will be able to perform with most digital personal assistants are as follows:

  • Read content from messages, mail, or websites

  • Write messages/emails

  • Place phone calls

  • Play media such as music/photos/videos

  • Set alarms, reminders, and calendar events

  • Perform web searches

All DPAs use the same fundamental user interface — speech. Since audio communication is the easiest of all human inputs, it only makes sense to use this as a means to simplify technology.

Here are some examples of how to ask your device to perform a task:

  • “Cortana, remind me to take my medicine at 5 pm.”

  • “OK, Google, what’s the weather like?”

  • “Siri, call Mom.”

Keep in mind that many third-party DPA applications are available on multiple platforms (some performing better than others); some of the more popular or mainstream types of DPAs available are discussed here.

Alexa: Amazon Echo

Integrated into a canister-shaped, computer-like network device called The Echo — Alexa can automate different network-connected equipment. Preprogrammed to answer to the name Alexa, this device can be told to go by any name you desire.

Alexa is not built into a cell phone. Instead the Echo is a stand-alone unit developed by Amazon to be able to have all of your network-connected devices talk to each other and perform simple tasks like checking the weather, playing music from your phone, iTunes, or sites like Pandora, or even reading aloud web articles such as this one.

While the capabilities are limited at the moment, imagine when a device like this one can talk to your stove or refrigerator, preheating the oven or checking whether the milk is low. The direction this technology is heading is boundless.

Cortana: Windows Phone

Available on Windows Phone 8.1 and above, Cortana was created with universal APIs (application programming interfaces),which means as the Cortana DPA service evolves, it will be more capable of performing in-app requests.

For example, with Cortana you can ask the device to access Facebook. But, unlike Siri, once in Facebook you will be able to tell it to post to your timeline or view and read your newsfeeds.

Ivona: Amazon Fire OS

Available on Fire Phone and Kindle Fire with Fire OS 3.5 and above, Ivona, also known as Firefly, uses the same technology as Alexa but is limited to such spoken tasks as:

  • Send a message

  • Place a call (Fire Phone only)

  • Search the web

In place of spoken tasks, a designated firefly button is built into all Fire OS devices instead and is optimized to use the camera and touch as opposed to speech.

For example, you can take a photo of contact information and push the Firefly button, and it will prompt you on-screen if you want to add this information to your contact list. Or you can take a picture of a product and push the button again, and you will be presented with information on the product such as price, specifications, locations, and reviews.

OK Google: Google Now

Google Now is available on Android 4.1 Jellybean and above as well as an app for iOS, and as a built-in extension on the chrome web browser. “OK Google” services are by far the most robust since integration with the Google database implements better search results and the multidevice; multi-OS platform is the only one of its kind.

However, Google Now seems to lack a personality and will not answer oddball questions such as: “Do you like me?” Instead, it will perform a Google search for the most pertinent information. (In this instance — “Do you like me now?” yields a YouTube Link.)

Betty: Ubuntu/Linux

Available on all Ubuntu/Linux Raspberry Pi devices, Betty can perform similar tasks to those like the more popular Siri, Cortana, or Google Now services.

Betty was originally designed for Linux and Unix desktops as a means to translate spoken English into computer terminal code. Betty was created for developers as a way to “code” (develop applications and software) faster without having to remember long stings of computer jargon.

Siri: Apple iOS

Available on late 2011-built iOS devices and newer, Siri was the first real DPA to hit the market and feels the most well developed in terms of personality and overall usability.

Granted DPAs are not robots and cannot do physical activities for you just yet, but as technology develops, they will be able to communicate with the other items in your home and work to make a more seamless automated environment. Consult your device’s user-guide or support webpage to see a list of what your DPA is able to do and what key phrases you need to use.