Home & Property

Virtual assistants: a blessing or a curse?

When smartphones entered our lives, they made many aspects of them easier. With iPhones enjoying huge popularity in Switzerland, it was only a matter of time before nearly everyone in the country would be on first-name terms with Siri the virtual assistant. These days, smart technology can be found anywhere from electronic gadgets such as mobile phones right through to our own four walls: the “smart home” is the concept that uses automated, remote-controlled devices to turn your house into a digital network. As well as giving you a better quality of life, it is also intended to be kind to the environment by reducing your domestic energy consumption as well as to make your home safer and more secure. 

What was initially dismissed as a trendy fad is now evolving into increasingly sophisticated smart speaker systems that can already be found in many US homes and an increasing number of German-speaking ones too.  Recent studies have shown that people quickly get used to having a virtual assistant around the house. Are digital virtual assistants and home systems the new home helps that nobody can afford to be without, or are there actually numerous drawbacks? How would it change the way we live if these kinds of digital assistant were to become more widespread in Switzerland as well?

Virtual assistants on your smartphone

When the “digital servant” came into our lives as a new software feature on Apple’s smartphones, many people peppered theirs with odd questions and requests. This soon led to Siri’s amusing responses doing the rounds and new cool tricks you could play with your virtual assistant being discovered all the time. Got a different smartphone and not familiar with Siri? Apple’s integrated virtual assistant is offered and used on the relevant mobile devices produced by the manufacturer. Siri responds to your commands in a variety of different languages and voices. All you need to do is press the Home button for a few seconds and voice recognition will be activated.  On the latest iPhones, Siri can also be launched by saying “Hey Siri”, meaning you don’t need to press any buttons at all. You can tell Siri to, for example, book appointments in your diary, find you something online, give you the weather forecast or play music. 

However, the competition has not been asleep at the wheel. Google also developed its own virtual assistant for Android and iOS in the shape of Google Now, since succeeded by Google Assistant. Microsoft, for its part, has Cortana, a software package developed for Windows, while Samsung Galaxy’s virtual assistant goes by the name of Bixby. All of the above are on hand to help their users tackle daily tasks. And the more you call on them, the more they get to know you, continuing to evolve as you ask them more and more things. But why stop at a smart phone if you can have a smart home too?

Smart home systems

Ever fancied using your mobile to check whether you switched the hob off or pressing a button remotely to close any open windows should the heavens suddenly open? In a state-of-the-art smart home, you can already do all this and more. Do you live smart yet? Although it is mainly people owning their own homes who are investing more and more frequently in smart home devices and systems, newbuilds earmarked for renting are also being equipped with ever smarter technology. Rather than being the preserve of tech-savvy youths, smart living is increasingly becoming a major help for the elderly and people who are ill. Technical aids are an extremely important part of living independently in old age. If you would like to learn more, we recommend reading our article entitled “Smarthome: Technik macht das Leben im Alter leichter” (“Smart homes: technology makes life easier in old age”; only available in German).

A speaker for the home

Smart speakers serve to link virtual assistants with smart homes. With its own Amazon Echo, US e-commerce giant Amazon brought the friendly female voice of Alexa into American households. Alexa comes with various abilities and features, also known as skills. As well as answering questions on the weather and giving travel updates, she also responds to commands such as to switch on music streaming service Spotify or read Kindle audiobooks out loud. Models that are somewhat more expensive can also control peripheral smart home devices.

Their popularity is growing rapidly, with many people more interested in the benefits than in any concerns over data protection. German-speaking households – primarily in Germany and Austria – have also been using Amazon’s voice service since February 2017. Whether users are looking for custom or smart home skills, Google Home and Apple’s HomePod are also establishing themselves as smart, web-based, voice-controlled personal assistants in addition to the Amazon Echo smart speaker.

Will we all soon be conversing with everyday objects?

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Although talking to artificial intelligence may take some getting used to, it – like many technologies before it – is now irrefutably here to stay. Handy, time-saving and easy to operate, it is no wonder that virtual assistants are extremely user-friendly home helps. As well as the benefits such as saving energy or being better protected against burglars, however, there are drawbacks too – cyber attacks, for instance. And the question of how to use several assistants at the same time without being dependent on a single manufacturer also remains unanswered. Alexa can already be used on other manufacturers’ devices such as Sonos speaker systems.

The younger audience are particularly adept at voice control and use their voice as a web interface. People prefer to dictate WhatsApp messages rather than type them into their smartphones. Online shopping, organising your daily tasks, keeping an eye on your spending: the use of voice control and digital virtual assistants will keep on rising, including in Switzerland, with experts believing the trend will have as far-reaching an impact as smartphones once did. The new digital home helps can therefore be expected to become an increasingly firm fixture in our daily lives. 

Guarding against cyber risks

The growing popularity and use of smart speakers and smart home systems also brings challenges. If you use smart home devices or systems in your house, this should be reflected in your home contents insurance. Supplement your Baloise insurance policy with innovative safety modules and create your very own insurance solution – tailored entirely to your needs. We will be happy to advise you if you have any questions.

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