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Here is a neat trick to try: make sure you have an active internet connection, then either tap and hold the home button on an Android phone or double tap the home button on an iPhone (or on some Windows phones, hit the search button).
Do this right and you will be prompted to tell the phone what you want. Tell? Yes, you literally talk to your phone instead of tapping its icons. Now, tell it to set a timer for ten minutes. Bang! You should now have an active timer counting down.
What just happened? Why, you interacted with your phone’s Virtual Personal Assistant (or VPA). Apple’s VPA is called Siri, Google’s is Google Now and Microsoft uses Cortana (if you use Windows 10, look for it in the menu). These nifty bits of technology are part of a new revolution where talking to our devices will be the way we interact with tomorrow’s technology.
The future's on your doorstep
Already there are televisions, fridges, air conditioners, doorbells, thermostats and more that can understand natural human language. Amazon has an amazing speaker called Echo: it not only plays your favourite songs on command, but can take all kinds of instructions. Many people love using Echo in the kitchen: tell it to put ingredients on your shopping list, set timers or read back a recipe you want to follow. You don’t even need to touch it - just talk! Perfect for when your hands are dirty.
VPAs and other voice recognition technologies are appearing everywhere. Many new cars let you sync your phone and then talk to it through your hands-free setup. If you own a smartwatch, chances are you can easily give commands to your phone by talking to your wrist. And if you open up Google’s Chrome browser right now and go to Google Docs, you can use voice dictation to ‘write’ whatever you want. Google even has its own Echo competitor called Google Home: and like Echo, it can take your orders, follow your calendar and much more.
The tech inside
How does this work? Though you might think the brain behind this is in your smartphone, it's actually not nearly smart enough for this job. Voice recognition and natural talking actually happens on giant computer networks, which is why you need an active internet connection so that your device can reach those digital brains. Those networks listen to thousands of voice commands every second and then teach themselves to understand us better. You read correctly: these systems can improve themselves by listening to us.
It has become so good that Amazon’s Echo speakers, which run a VPA called Alexa, can be activated by hearing its name over the radio. Alexa can even do shopping, as one distressed parent learned. Her little girl asked Alexa to play dolls with her, so Alexa ordered a dolls' house!
In the next ten years, you are very likely to do some talking with your home. You will tell it to turn off the lights and check if the doors are all locked. In the morning you will instruct it to open the curtains and start your coffee. You might even tell your house that your teenager can’t leave their room until 4, when they have presumably done their homework, and your house will tell you over your phone that they skipped out early.
Amazing? Yes, which is why we can’t do all of that right perfectly now. You may notice the VPA on your phone is not fantastic at taking layered instructions and that it struggles with strange or some big words. But compared to VPAs from five years ago, these new guys are geniuses. And the VPAs five years from now will be a hundred times smarter.
But for now, just tell your phone to set a timer for that boiling egg and enjoy your coffee without lumbering through menu options. Who needs that aggravation? Let your phone do all the listening!