Using the Web to Get Stuff Done: What is a Digital Assistant?

Lesson 24: What is a Digital Assistant?


What is a digital assistant?

These days, most people lead pretty busy lives. You may not always have the time or the ability to use your phone or computer to get something done. Maybe you're driving but want to send someone a text message, or perhaps your hands are dirty while you're cooking but you'd like to put on some background music. Thanks to digital assistants, you can do these tasks and many others, often without having to touch a thing!

A digital assistant (sometimes called a virtual assistant) is voice-activated software that can understand and carry out electronic tasks for you. Instead of using your hands to pull up certain apps or programs, you just need to speak a command and the digital assistant will carry it out for you. If you have a smartphone, tablet, or newer computer, there's a good chance it has a built-in digital assistant.

What can digital assistants do?

The range of tasks digital assistants can perform is growing more and more every day. Below is a list of a few popular phrases and tasks you can command your digital assistant to do:

  • Text my brother Happy Birthday!
  • Play music by Radiohead
  • Add eggs to the shopping list
  • Which movie won Best Picture in 1987?
  • Directions to the nearest library
  • Tell me a joke

Popular digital assistants

The most popular digital assistants today are already built in and installed on various computers and mobile devices. Here are a few of the most popular ones on the market today, along with where to find them and how to access them.

  • Siri: This can be found on devices using iOS and macOS Sierra. To use Siri, simply press and hold the Home button on the iPhone or iPad and start talking.
  • Google Assistant: This can be found in the Google app on Android phones and is also available for iOS. To use it, simply say OK Google, followed by your question or command.
  • Cortana: This can be found on devices running Windows 10 but can also be downloaded for iOS and Android. To use Cortana, simply click the microphone icon on the taskbar or say Hey Cortana, then start talking.
  • Alexa: This is currently available on the Amazon Echo and Fire TV (along with a few third-party devices). Using Alexa is similar to using Google Now, except you'll start by saying Hey Alexa.