Home digital assistants have officially hit the mainstream this holiday season, with Google and Amazon each offering a viable – although somewhat finicky – virtual aide that can do your bidding.

Google launched its Home products in Canada this fall, and Amazon followed shortly after by officially launching its Echo line in early December. Both devices are still a far cry from the likes seen in “Star Trek” or “Iron Man,” but their capabilities are constantly expanding. They’re also well ahead of Apple’s HomePod, which failed to meet an expected December launch date, and has been delayed for release until early 2018, at least. Their Siri-based technology is thought to be a step behind Alexa and Google Home anyway, so you’re not missing much in that regard.

CTVNews.ca explores some of the exciting things you can do so far with your new Google or Amazon home assistant, beyond simply waking it with “OK Google” or “Hey, Alexa.”

Home entertainment

Amazon’s Alexa-enabled Echo and Google Home’s Assistant are both good at enhancing your home media options, with the capacity to access your Spotify account or Amazon/Google-specific music services through voice commands.

The two devices are more at odds when it comes to your brand of smart TV or smart media player. Roku devices work with both Echo and Google Home, but Google Chromecast and Amazon Fire products are restricted to the built-in artificial intelligence produced by their respective parent companies. If you have a mismatch, you’re out of luck.

But, assuming all your compatibilities are lined up, you should be able to request a TV show, podcast or song through your preferred service.

For instance, if you have Google Chromecast in your living room, you should be able to say: “OK Google, play Daredevil Season 1 on the living room TV.”

Alternatively, you could say: “Hey Alexa, play the New Retro playlist on Spotify.”

Get Canadian news from your favourite source

Amazon’s Alexa can be configured to read you the news from your preferred sources, including CTV News. Simply say: “Alexa, enable CTV News” to activate the feature. Various other Canadian and U.S. networks are also available.

Google Home can also be customized. You can either ask it to read you the news from a specific source, or login to the Google News page and arrange your preferred sites through there.

Recipes, reminders and traffic

One of the handy, hands-free benefits of a home assistant is its capacity to answer your questions while you’re busy with something else. If you’re cooking, for instance, you can ask your home assistant to convert grams to cups, or look up whether you can substitute milk for cream in a recipe.

The devices can also be used to set timers and reminders, and to estimate any delays due to traffic on your way to work.

Build a smarter house

Personal assistants are great for looking up trivia and telling you the weather, but they can also be used to control your physical environment. Picture this: Your alarm goes off in the morning, your favourite radio station immediately switches on,and the lights in your room illuminate at their lowest setting, giving your eyes time to adjust. You walk out of your bedroom and your coffeemaker is already brewing, your bread is toasting and your TV has already switched over to the news.

It sounds like a fantasy, but it’s entirely possible with a home assistant and a “smart” home stocked with the right, typically pricey gadgets.

A wide range of Wifi or Bluetooth-enabled “smart” objects have been designed to work with the two home assistants, so you can adjust your lights, pick your favourite movie or fire up your coffeemaker with just a few words to your trusty new robot pal. It’s not only an exciting possibility, but an attractive one as well for people with mobility issues.

But, before you race out and grab a bunch of these smart objects, do your homework first, since They’re not all universally compatible. Check the packaging or product description to ensure the gadget you’re considering works with Alexa or Google Home.

Perhaps one of the most well-known, universally-compatible devices is the Nest home thermostat system. It’s designed to be controlled from your smartphone, but can be integrated with whichever home assistant you choose.

Some smart objects simply require a Wifi connection, while others require a little bit of infrastructure to get working. Many smart lightbulb kits, for instance, require a hub device for the network to operate. These bulbs also tend to be significantly more expensive than a halogen or run-of-the-mill LED bulb, so be aware that the added functionality is going to cost you.

There are a wide range of smart lights on the market, from the higher-end Philips Hue line to the more inexpensive Tradfri bulbs at Ikea. A number of specialty bulbs also offer the capacity to change the colour of your lights, while other bulbs are equipped with hidden speakers.

Another option is to get your hands on a few Wifi-enabled smart plugs, which you can use to remotely control the power flow to not-so-smart appliances.

Protect yourself from hackers

Cybersecurity experts warn that some smart home technology can leave you vulnerable to hacking, simply by virtue of the fact that it’s connected to the internet. Brand new technologies can be particularly problematic because retailers historically rush them to market, according to cybersecurity expert Imran Ahmad.

“When they’re rushing, often they will forget or not put as much emphasis on the security things, and that’s where the vulnerabilities come in,” Ahmad, head of cyber security practice at Miller Thomson LLP, told CTV News Channel in December.

Ahmad pointed out that most “smart” technologies are actually quite simple compared to a desktop computer, and so are easier to break into. “It’s very easy to get what we call admin access, which is the highest-level access you can get,” he said. Admin access can be used to make all kinds of configuration changes to your technology, including controlling it remotely or analyzing usage patterns to determine when you’re away from home.

He says your level of exposure increases with the amount of smart technologies you add to your network, but there are ways to safeguard against hacker intrusion.

First of all, he recommends doing some online research on the smart home accessories you want before purchasing them, paying attention to any analyses of their security features.

“Do your homework,” Ahmad said.

Second, he said it’s critical to register your item with the manufacturer so you can stay on top of recommended software updates. “You may have a situation where you’re missing that critical update and your system is compromised as a result.”

Expanding your system

The good news about your fancy new home assistant is that it should age fairly well, since its AI “brain” lives on the internet, not in the speaker. That means developers can continue to update their services remotely, without you being required to shell out every six months for a faster speaker.

Instead, manufacturers are offering their AI-driven speakers in different formats, so you can get the appropriate-sized device for each room in your home. Amazon is at the forefront of this movement, with a lineup of Echo devices including the miniaturized Dot, the alarm clock-like Spot, the screen-enabled Show, the camera-equipped Look and the smart hub-enabled Echo Plus. They're not all out yet, but they will be soon.

Google’s line of products is not yet as diverse as Amazon’s, but Home developers still want you to buy multiple devices. To that end, the company currently offers three differently-sized speakers: the Mini, the standard Google Home and the Google Home Max.

Both systems can be configured to play audio simultaneously in different rooms of the home, or to play audio from your television.

Games, shopping and much more

Alexa users have access to thousands of what Amazon calls “skills,” which can be added to your system by simply telling Alexa to “enable” them. A full list of American skills is available on Amazon.com,  with additional Canadian skills featured on Amazon.ca.

Google Home’s full list of commands, called “actions,” can be accessed by going to the More Settings menu and clicking Services on your smartphone’s Google Home app.

The cutting edge

The AI that enables virtual personal assistants is still a far cry from the cutting-edge tech being developed by the world’s top researchers. In fact, some of Google’s brightest minds are working several years ahead of the curve at the recently-launched Google Brain facility in Montreal, where they’re enabling computers to do more thinking with less data.

The focus of their work is a field of AI called deep learning, which involves teaching a machine to evaluate a situation based on a variety of factors, and to give those factors more or less weight based on past experience. Vast quantities of data are used to inform this learning process, so that the machine has a lot of examples to draw upon in a given situation.

“A lot of the progress with deep learning… has been enabled by large quantities of data,” Google Brain’s lead researcher, Hugo Larochelle, told CTVNews.ca last month. Larochelle’s team is currently working on AI systems that require much less data to function, so that it doesn’t take months or years for such systems to learn new tasks.

For instance, the latest versions of Google Translate come equipped with the ability to recognize and translate written text in real time. Larochelle was among the researchers who made this possible, by teaching a deep learning AI to recognize millions of photos of text in various languages. That AI is now capable of translating new examples of foreign text because it’s been exposed to millions of examples of that text in the past.

One of the ultimate applications of his research is to expand that capability to other elements of Google’s Home Assistant, so it might one day be able to learn a person’s habits and personality based on just a few weeks or months of interaction. It might also improve a Home Assistant’s ability to recognize people through a camera.

“Will that happen next year? Probably not,” he said. “But any little bit of progress will move that forward.”