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Everything you need to know about digital assistants

One of the popular must-have gadgets for families is a digital assistant. Whether it’s Alexa, Cortana or Siri, families are turning to these voice-controlled devices to help lighten the workload of their busy lives.

Parent Zone’s Yusuf Tamanna looks at what digital assistants are, which ones are currently on the market, and what possible concerns parents may have, especially when using such devices around children.


What is a digital assistant?

A digital assistant, sometimes called a smart speaker, is a piece of voice activated software that can carry out a range of tasks for you based on your command. Common requests include ‘What’s the weather like today?’ or ‘Text Dad Happy Birthday.’

What do parents need to know?

Digital assistants are designed to become intuitive over time based on the information you provide. This means they can predict your requests or suggest things it thinks you would like.

They will record the commands you ask them to carry out. This is so they can store a bank of common requests, understand your accent better and ultimately perform better the more you use it.

Your requests are then stored on a remote server, but it’s still unclear whether the data is then shared onto third parties for other purposes. If you’re not comfortable with your voice command history being saved on a server then there is an way to delete this. [See Fig 1].

Although a digital assistant will always be listening, it won’t record any conversations you have in passing around the home. There is also a mute button that can be found either on the top or at the back of the device.

Concerns and advice

To find out what the potential concerns parents may have when using assistants around the home, Parent Zone spoke to Dr Jun Zhao, a computer scientist and senior research fellow from the University of Oxford.

One of the biggest concerns for parents is around third party data use. Zhao said: ‘Technologies are universally embedded in every corner of our lives and we do not always know an awful a lot about what happens to our data once we give it over to things like digital assistants.

‘So it’s worth finding out what happens to our data once we give it over to digital assistants.’

Zhao compared it to when people sign up to social media accounts without reading the small print and don’t know where their data is going or if it’s being used for targeted advertising.

‘It’s worth finding out what happens to our data once we give it over to digital assistants.’

For parents thinking about buying a digital assistant for their home this Christmas, Zhao advises having an age-appropriate discussion with your child about what can happen when using such a device at home.

‘Parents should explain that the voices used to control digital assistants are sent across to remote servers for processing to ultimately improve the service. Ask your child if they’re happy for their data to be used in this way.’

Zhao also suggested turning off the location settings feature and using a passcode to prevent voice-enabled purchases being made by children.

Ultimately Dr Zhao suggests that our choice of technologies should be based on an understanding of what the tech can help with and what data they might use to help around the home.

‘Modern households are craving efficiency and convenience and they [digital assistants] are able to provide that because of how much information they have about us. Should we be scared or sceptical about this? I think what is more important is being mindful about how much we’re giving away and what we’re seeing and not seeing.’

What’s already out there?

The idea of a device operating solely by voice control might seem like something from a sci-fi film, but small-scale digital assistants have been around for over half a decade in smartphones.


Perhaps the most famous digital assistant of them all, Siri, launched in 2011 with Apple’s iPhone 4S. This was the first voice activated technology available on the high street. Siri can call your friends, play music and answer general knowledge questions. Compared to standalone digital assistants, Siri is fairly limited in what it can do but it’s a gentle reminder that we’ve been enjoying the benefits of voice-controlled technology for a while now.

Amazon Echo

Amazon’s own voice-control system, which responds to ‘Alexa’, is a smart speaker used to play music. But it can also search the internet, generate weather reports, create to-do lists and control smart home devices. 

As it’s an Amazon product it will only play music if you’re a member of Amazon’s streaming service. It’s also worth noting that Alexa can only control the smart devices it’s compatible with. This means it won’t be able to control any of your Apple or Microsoft products around the home.

A full list of all the products Amazon Echo is compatible with can be found here.


Fig 1 – How to delete data from Amazon Echo and Google Home

Google Home

Similar to Amazon Echo, Google’s digital assistant doubles up as a smart speaker and a way to control all compatible smart-home technology. As it’s a Google product, it will only be able to play music that’s saved on your Google Cloud platform. You can control YouTube using simple voice commands, as well as stream music on Spotify, but if you want to listen to music from your iOS device, you’ll need to send it to Google Home using Google Cast.

Google Home will only work with your television if it has Chromecast, a USB plug-in that allows you to control what’s showing on your smartphone to appear on your television, built into it.

A full list of all the products Google Home is compatible with can be found here.


Further reading

12 ways to make smart toys saferDeputy commissioner of the ICO, Steve Wood, offers tips for parents buying wi-fi toys this Christmas.

Child friendly T&Cs – Parent Zone explains what children are signing up for when they accept the terms and conditions on popular online services.

Amazon Echo for dementia – How Amazon Echo is supporting seniors in later life.