Voice assistants in the home: what they can and can’t do


The big names in intelligent, voice-activated home assistants are Amazon’s Alexa, Microsoft’s Cortana, the Google Assistant and the forthcoming Siri HomePod from Apple.

In terms of functionality, these systems don’t differ that much from each other. Most consist of a speaker with a built-in computer and microphone. Some models on the way will have a screen and Amazon has launched a smart camera with Alexa in the US.

Once integrated into the home network, the assistants listen for their activation word. For example, if the user says “Alexa,” the wizard activates and is ready to carry out spoken commands.

On their own the devices can do things like play music from streaming services, answer questions about the weather, carry out web searches, and create calendar entries and reminders.

But it’s only once they’re networked with other devices that they really come into their own. “They can control the smart home without problems,” says Timm Lutter from German IT association Bitkom.

For example, the voice assistant can be used to control lighting, heating and alarms systems and to open and close shutters.

However, if you don’t have networked devices the home assistant won’t do much. “The box as such can’t replace a smart home,” Lutter says. They’re basically control units, and if the lighting and the thermostat don’t work with Alexa, Cortana or Siri, then your home will remain dark and cold.

“If there are no connected devices, Amazon’s Echos are just superior kitchen radios,” says tech journalist Sven Hansen. The Echo is a smart speaker used with Alexa.

And the talk of artificial intelligence is also exaggerated, Hansen says: “There is relatively little intelligence. This is the biggest disappointment of this product group.”

So saying “Alexa, I’m cold” won’t prompt it to turn on the heating. Instead you have to give clear commands.

Another thing to bear in mind is that these digital language assistants open up entirely new challenges for data protection. “You’re giving away a biometric feature: your voice,” says Uwe Kissmann, manager of Cyber Security at consulting firm Accenture.

Data stored by the assistant can be merged with data from other online services. This allows detailed user profiles to be created for marketing and market research purposes.

In the end, users have to trust that the makers of these devices will protect them properly from external access. “There’s no guarantee that nobody will use the device for listening,” Kissmann says.