Need help? Ask a virtual assistant

“Alexa, how did the New York Mets do last night?” “Alexa, order ‘Silver Linings Playbook’ on Blu-ray.” “Alexa, dim the lights 30 percent and lower the thermostat to 68 degrees.”

Alexa is a virtual assistant that, like a genie in a bottle, inhabits the Amazon Echo speaker, a 9.25-inch-tall, internet-connected black cylinder, explains Consumer Reports.

Alexa responds to questions almost as quickly as a human would and seems better than other virtual assistants at responding to imprecise language. “What’s going on?” will elicit a personalized update on your calendar and on the news and weather. “Shut up” is another command she follows (without taking any noticeable offense). She can even answer from across a moderately noisy room. When stumped, Alexa politely asks you to repeat your question or admits that she doesn’t know how to respond.

Virtual digital assistants aren’t new, of course. The iPhone’s Siri and the nameless assistant in Android phones have been placing our telephone calls, finding us directions and responding to other spoken commands for years.

Just like the best human assistants, Alexa and her ilk can learn new skills quickly. In fact, at last count, she had more than 1,400 skills and counting – up from a little more than the 100 she could do early on. All it takes is a software update beamed across the internet.

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Alexa has given Amazon a long head start in the race to bring personal assistants into the home, but competition is coming soon from Google and very likely from Apple.

Google already has begun promoting its talking speaker, called Google Home, which is due to arrive by the end of this year. Google says it will feature Google Assistant, a smarter, more conversational version of the one already available to Android smartphone users.

Apple hasn’t yet announced a talking speaker, Consumer Reports says, but the operating system updates it is planning for iOS 10, due this fall, include a smarter, more conversational Siri. That assistant will be liberated from the iPhone to work on Apple devices such as Apple TV and laptops. Siri could become more like Alexa or Google Assistant, with more control over third-party apps for everything from giving directions to making shopping lists.

What’s more, you’ll be able to use Siri to turn on and adjust lights and appliances through a new mobile app called Home. Talk to the Home speaker, which vaguely resembles a giant air freshener, and Google Assistant will deliver weather reports, stock quotes and other info gleaned from Web searches and apps linked to your Google account (such as the places you’ve visited using Google Maps).

And it will work in conjunction with your Android smartphone. According to Google, if you ask the speaker to tell you about traffic on the way to the airport, it will not only answer you verbally but also queue the directions up in the Google Maps app on your phone.

To learn more, visit

2016, Consumers Union Inc.

Distributed by Universal Uclick for UFS

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