What Is a Virtual Assistant and How Does It Work?

How smart speakers and assistants are transforming our lives

A virtual assistant is an application that understands voice commands and completes tasks for a user. Virtual assistants are available on most smartphones and tablets, traditional computers, and even standalone devices like the Amazon Echo and Google Home.

They combine specialized computer chips, microphones, and software that listen for specific spoken commands from you and can answer back in a voice that you select.

Person looking at tablet.


The Basics of Virtual Assistants

There are five primary virtual assistants on the market (others exist but aren't as popular):

Virtual assistants like these can do everything from answer questions, tell jokes, play music, and control items in your home such as lights, thermostats, door locks, and smart home devices. They can respond to many voice commands, send text messages, make phone calls, and set up reminders. Anything you do on your phone, you can probably ask your virtual assistant to do for you.

Virtual assistants learn over time and get to know your habits and preferences, so they're always getting smarter. Using artificial intelligence (AI), they understand natural language, recognize faces, identify objects, and communicate with other smart devices and software.

The power of digital assistants will only grow, and it's inevitable that you'll use one of these assistants sooner or later (if you haven't already). Amazon Echo and Google Home are the main choices in smart speakers, though we expect to see models from other brands down the road.

How to Use a Virtual Assistant

In most cases, you need to "wake up" your virtual assistant by saying, "Hey Siri," "OK Google," or "Alexa" depending on the device's name. Most virtual assistants are smart enough to understand natural language, but you have to be specific. For instance, if you connect Amazon Echo with the Uber app, Alexa can request a ride, but you have to phrase the command correctly. You have to say, "Alexa, ask Uber to request a ride."

Typically, you need to speak to your virtual assistant because it's listening for voice commands. Some can reply to typed commands. For example, iPhones with iOS 11 or later can type questions or commands to Siri rather than speaking them. Also, Siri can respond by text rather than speech if you prefer. Likewise, Google Assistant can respond to typed commands by voice or by text.

On smartphones, use a virtual assistant to adjust settings or complete tasks like sending a text, making a phone call, or playing a song. Using a smart speaker, control other smart devices in your home, such as the thermostat, lights, or security system.

How Virtual Assistants Work

Virtual assistants are passive listening devices that respond once they recognize a command or greeting (such as "Hey Siri"). Passive listening means the device always hears what's happening around it, which raises privacy concerns. These concerns have been highlighted by smart devices serving as witnesses to crimes.

The virtual assistant must be connected to the internet so it can conduct web searches and find answers or communicate with other smart devices. However, since they're passive listening devices, they usually need a wake word or command to activate. That said, it's not unheard of that the device could start recording without a wake word.

When you communicate with a virtual assistant by voice, you trigger the assistant and ask your question without pausing. For example, "Hey Siri, what was the score of the Eagle's game?" If the virtual assistant doesn't understand your command or can't find an answer, it lets you know. You can try again by rephrasing your question or speaking louder or slower. In some cases, there may be some back and forth, like if you ask for an Uber. You might have to provide additional information about your location or destination.

To activate smartphone-based virtual assistants like Siri and Google Assistant, hold down the home button on the device. Then, type in your question or request, and Siri and Google responds by text. Smart speakers, such as the Amazon Echo, can only respond to voice commands.

The Popular Virtual Assistants

Here's a rundown of the five most popular virtual assistants.


Alexa, Amazon's virtual assistant, is built into the Amazon Echo line of smart speakers. You can also find it on some third-party speakers from brands like Sonos. You can ask the Echo questions like, "Alexa, who is hosting SNL this week?" You can also ask it to play a song, make a phone call, or control your smart home devices. It has a feature called "multi-room music," which lets you play the same tunes from each of your Echo speakers.

Alexa recognizes a handful of wake words, including "Alexa," "Amazon," "Computer," "Echo," and "Ziggy."

You can also configure the Amazon Echo with third-party apps, so you can use it to call an Uber, pull up a recipe, or lead you through a workout.


Samsung's take on virtual assistants is Bixby, which is compatible with Samsung smartphones with Android 7.9 Nougat or higher. Like Alexa, Bixby responds to voice commands. It can give you reminders about upcoming events or tasks. It can control most of your device settings and can mirror content from your phone to most Samsung Smart TVs.

You can use Bixby along with your camera to shop, get a translation, read QR codes, and identify a location. For example, you can take a picture of a building to get information about it or snap a photo of a product you want to buy. You can also take a photo of text you want translated.


Cortana is Microsoft's virtual digital assistant and comes installed with Windows 10 computers. It's also available as a download for Android and Apple mobile devices. To get Cortana on your Android or Apple device, you need to create or log into a Microsoft account. Microsoft has partnered with Harman Kardon to release a smart speaker.

Cortana uses the Bing search engine to answer simple queries and can set reminders and answer voice commands. You can set time-based and location-based reminders, and create a photo reminder if you need to pick up something specific at the store.

Google Assistant

Google Assistant is available on many Android phones, including Google Pixel smartphones, as well as the Google Home smart speaker, and some third-party speakers from brands including JBL. You can even set it up on an iPhone.

You can interact with Google Assistant on your smartwatch, laptop, and TV. While you can use specific voice commands, it also responds to a conversational tone and follow-up questions. Google Assistant interacts with a multitude of apps and smart home devices.


Siri, perhaps the most well-known virtual assistant, is Apple's brainchild. This virtual assistant works on iPhone, iPad, Mac, Apple Watch, Apple TV, and HomePod, the company's smart speaker.

The default voice is female, but you can change it to male, and change the language to Spanish, Chinese, French, and many others. You can also teach it how to pronounce names correctly. When dictating, you can speak out the punctuation and tap to edit if Siri gets the message wrong. For commands, you can use natural language.

  • How do you turn off a voice assistant?

    On iOS 11 or later, go to Settings > Siri & Search and turn off toggles for Listen for "Hey Siri," Press Home for Siri, and Allow Siri When Locked. On Android, tap Settings > Accessibility > Screen reader > turn off the Voice Assistant toggle. To temporarily disable Cortana in Windows 10, go to Settings, turn off the Keyboard shortcut toggle, and reboot the PC.

  • Who's the voice of Google Assistant?

    When Google Assistant first launched, it used the voice of a Google employee named Kiki Baessell. Since then, Google has added male and female voices, British and Australian voices, and even cameo voices from celebrities like Issa Rae.

  • How do you change the Google Assistant voice?

    Open the Google app and tap More > Settings > Google Assistant > Assistant Voice. Scroll through the options and choose the one you like best.

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