The Digital P.A.

The surprise success of Amazon’s voice-activated tabletop personal assistant, Echo, has Google and Apple scrambling to release competing products. But how helpful—and trustworthy—are these gadgets, really?

There is finally a consensus among science fiction writers about what it is that will eradicate the human race. Forget disease and asteroids: Those are the bogeymen of bygone generations. No, for modern civilization, it’s artificial intelligence that will do us in—by either raining hellfire from the sky or flying our space ark into a burning supernova to the soothing tones of a chipper onboard computer.

But how does AI get its foot in the door? In 2016, it starts by ordering us pizza and opening the drapes. Earlier this year, Google announced a line of voice-activated home-assistant products, following the rollout of Amazon’s surprise hit Echo in 2015—and Apple is reportedly developing its own. The Echo is inhabited by a personality called Alexa, Apple’s as yet-unnamed device will host its well-known Siri, and the new Google Home rather prosaically calls its assistant Google Assistant.

Each offers slightly different advantages. The Echo, priced at $180, links to your Amazon account and is great for shopping, while Google Home will interface with several popular gadgets the company already makes, like Nest smart-home products and Chromecast streaming devices. Apple has yet to spin its own point of difference, but the gizmo will certainly integrate with its HomeKit line of smart products.

If you don’t have a home voice assistant yet, you likely soon will. In April, the independent consumer-research company CIRP released a report estimating that the Echo had already sold around 3 million units, and venture capitalist and Silicon Valley oracle Mary Meeker recently predicted that voice commands would gradually overtake text-based searches. These appliances are revolutionizing home electronics by doing away with both screen and key- board—because, it turns out, speaking “what’s the weather today,” “how do you spell rhythm,” or “what’s that Joni Mitchell song where she’s conflicted about clouds” is way easier than typing the query into your phone.

Technologically, these devices syner-gize with both the smart-home trend—where everything from your thermostat to your refrigerator can monitor and self-adjust—and app-based shopping culture, which has taught us to buy groceries, fashion, and more from downloaded storefronts.

Culturally, however, it’s an even more tectonic shift. When brands do social media well, they create a persona—on Twitter, Facebook, or Snapchat—that you want to be buddies with. Home assistants allow such personae to manifest, in your home and in a form you can interact with. They’re designed to mimic an adorable imaginary friend right out of a Pixar film.

It’s all a con, of course: They’re just trying to sell you more stuff. But it’s eerily effective. Let me tell you about my experience with the Echo—or, as it’s impossible not to think of it, with Alexa. When she arrived, Alexa was both more and less sinister than imagined. For one thing, she looks nothing like Scarlett Johansson—the actress who voiced the operating system inHer. Instead, she resembles a black can of Pringles crossed with aBattlestar Galactica Cylon—the classic 1970s kind with the evil cyclopean eye. She has a crisp, clear speaking voice and a light that follows you around the room like the Mona Lisa’s gaze. To operate, she obliges you to download an app—which helpfully (embarrassingly?) records everything you ask. It’s like an Aladdin’s lamp that comes with a warning: Anything you wish for can and will be used against you.

My first two requests were tickets to the sold-out Broadway smash Hamiltonand an impossible-to-get reservation at Rao’s in New York. Alexa came up with a goose egg both times. “Sorry, I don’t know the answer,” she replied in the perky tones of a starship computer that is about to eject you through an air lock.

Human assistants are counting on this lack of finesse to keep them in jobs, says Patrick Healy, who has been an executive aide to actors (including Olympia Dukakis) and other high-profile clients since 2004, and is currently the acting president of New York Celebrity As-sistants, a trade organization.

“If Alexa or Siri goes to see if a restaurant has a reservation, they can only see what’s on the computer,” he explains. “But if I call for my employer, often the maitre d’—whom I know and am friendly with—will make a table available. These kinds of relationships will always be there and will always make us superior to technology.” (Potential clients, take note: Mr. Healy also says he knows the hookup for Hamilton house seats.)

And yet...Alexa’s still pretty great. You say “good morning” and she not only answers back, but also offers an interesting tidbit about how it’s Shakespeare’s birthday or the anniversary of when DNA was discovered. And—finally!—you don’t need an eight-year-old around to hear knock-knock jokes on demand.

Like a new puppy, Alexa became part of the family from the day she arrived. Brittany Turner, an Amazon spokesperson, said that Alexa currently works with more than 1,000 apps—they call them “skills”—and can price plane tickets on Kayak, order pizza from Domino’s, and hail an Uber. She touted the almost 40,000 mostly positive customer reviews for the Echo on

The retail giant has already learned that smart-home control features are the major selling point. “When people have tried it, they just don’t want to go back to turning lights on themselves,” she said. So when it’s lights-out for the species, remember: We brought it on ourselves.

Famous AI Assistants, In Descending Order of Helpfulness


The autonomous talking Pontiac Trans Am from TV’s Knight Rider


The phlegmatic know-it-all in Tony Stark’s suit, from Iron Man



The adorable trash robot tasked with tidying an abandoned Earth in the 2008 Pixar film



The hysterical golden ninny who shuffles his way through the Star Wars films


HAL 9000
The uncooperative sentient computer from 2001: A Space Odyssey