Google Home Mini

Google Home Mini is among the growing number of digital assistants. PICTURE: Kevin Bhagat/Unsplash

Since time began (well, maybe not back that far), science fiction movies have featured homes (and space ships) with a central computer system which looks after the running of things and answers any questions people may have. In the past few years, we've started to see science fiction come science reality with the launch of a range of 'digital assistants' which, while they might not have the full capabilities of those we see in movies like Minority Report or Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, are certainly a step towards it. The so-called 'voice valets' include Apple's pioneering voice assistant known as Siri - initially confined to phones but now also available on computers and, soon, the upcoming HomePod device - as well as Amazon's Alexa (found on the Amazon Echo), the Google Assistant (found on Google Home) and a plethora of lesser known assistants found on products such as the robot Kuri, all of which are competing to help you navigate life, both in the home and without. Figures released by Pew Research last December show that almost half of all Americans are already using virtual assistants, although most still do so on phones - just eight per cent of Americans said they accessed a voice assistant on stand-alone home devices. There's obvious pros and cons to their use - on the pro side, the easy access to all your information, including music and photo libraries, just by using your voice is, no doubt extremely convenient as is the ability turn off the lights or to shop, all without leaving the couch. On the con side, however, there are privacy concerns about an 'always on' microphone (in the US, the American Civil Liberties Union is among those to raise them) as well as worries over security (what could hackers do with the information they are privy to, not to mention the ability to turn your appliances on and off?). There are also concerns about the extent to which advertisers and corporations are influencing the answers and outcomes your services provide and issues to consider surrounding how our use of virtual assistants may affect our interaction with other humans. Many of these concerns have been around since digital technologies became a ubiquitous part of our lives, of course, but the advent of virtual assistants has given them a new resonance. Meaning that as their adoption by households across the world will continue to reshape the way many of us live, so too will the debates over their use. What do you think Siri?