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Time You Made Friends With Alexa: Smart Assistants Will Be As Ubiquitous In The Home As Light Switches

21/12/2016 16:11 GMT | Updated 21/12/2016 16:11 GMT
Bloomberg via Getty Images

With the Amazon Echo Dot and Echo sitting proudly at second and third place in the UK best-selling electronics chart on the retail giant's own site, the proof is in the virtual Christmas pudding: smart assistants are in high demand this festive season.

These voice-activated devices have been an unprecedented runaway success throughout the latter half of 2016. Figures show that more than 4 million Amazon Echos, which incorporate the virtual assistant Alexa, were sold in the US alone this year and the UK market is never far behind.

These insignificant-looking gadgets can wake you up, order you a takeaway, play your favourite songs, read you the news, warn you about the weather, control your smart heating system, tell you a joke, and even fill up your fridge.

Most importantly, they are always getting smarter - learning from their mistakes and user feedback to improve the experience.

But why, if they are still in the early learning phase, do smart assistants already have such widespread appeal, even beyond the early adopter crowd?

First, they're useful. We live in a world where instant gratification is expected, and smart assistants embody the ease and accessibility of the modern world.

Second, they are more accessible than most gadgets. You plug it in, tell it what to do and it'll either comprehend the task or fail. If it fails, you simply try another command. There are no touch screens to contend with, beyond setting up your preferences and tweaking your settings in the supporting app. This is a gadget even technophobes could use with ease.

Finally, this isn't alien technology to us. Most of us will have watched at least one episode of Star Trek. We were probably comfortable with voice-activated gadgetry decades before we got our first smartphones.

The convenience of having one of these little boxes in every room is obvious - who wouldn't say yes to hands free assistance when they're juggling a toddler, or doing the washing up.

But there is something slightly perturbing about it all. A device that's always listening, potentially in every room of the home, could soon be the norm. The potential for abuse is incredible.

The representation of artificial intelligence in popular culture springs to mind all too quickly. Virtual personal assistants have been portrayed as something from a dystopian nightmare - a nod to the sentient computer HAL of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Having said this, if early popularity isn't short-lived, it doesn't seem unfeasible that the likes of Amazon Echo and Google Home will be as ubiquitous as fridge freezers or light switches, and the way we interact with technology will rapidly transition towards the verbal.

We're still not used to speaking instructions into our smartphones or dictating text messages, but the advent of voice-activated assistants in the home is set to change that.

If you've ever bumped into someone who's walking along the street typing frantically into a phone, or been there yourself, you'll see the benefits of speech over touch. This is a multi-tasker's dream.