A helpful, hands-free assistant is exactly what we need at this moment. Luckily, some of these changes are already in the works.
Editors' Note: Since we first published this story on Wednesday, Google has added two of the features we suggested: A hand-washing timer and more robust news update offerings.
If you ask your smart speaker about Covid-19, the answers you get are straightforward: Siri sends you to the CDC website; Alexa gives a brief history of the coronavirus, then suggests asking about the fatality rate; Google Assistant offers the WHO definition, lists symptoms and suggests ways to avoid infection. All of these responses seem appropriate and genuinely helpful (if a little morbid in Alexa's case).
But in many ways, a pandemic that forces many of us into home quarantine and makes us paranoid about touching our faces or anything else is the perfect time for voice assistants to snap into action. So far, we haven't seen much beyond the rote responses already in place, but here are six smart ways voice assistants could make a big difference over the coming weeks and months.
Read more: How to make your home more hands-free
One of the hardest parts of quarantining if you're healthy is the simple challenge of isolation. I have two kids under 4 years old, and I can't imagine how hard it would be to be stuck in our old 700-square-foot apartment -- a house with a playroom and back yard is hard enough. But voice assistants can connect to games, streaming platforms and the internet: This is the perfect time to suggest new games to play, shows to watch and home activities to try.
For those hoping to stay apprised of the pandemic's progress, curated news -- from silly videos like Arnold Schwarzenegger's and Alton Brown's to more serious updates like presidential addresses -- is a big opportunity. Smart speakers can play audio and smart displays can play video, and we could all keep a little more informed without being glued to our phones all day.
Google added this feature Thursday: Just ask "What's the latest with the coronavirus," and Google Assistant will share an update or play video clips from trustworthy news outlets.
Many cities have Alexa skills that keep communities aware of the local news. Teaming up with city officials to offer programming for city-specific skills could help communities stay on top of local developments.
This is something voice assistants can already help with, if you get the right devices. Voice commands mean you don't have to touch places that get heavy traffic during the day -- light switches, locks, remotes and phones. If you're trying to minimize the spread of germs, smart home control is one clever way to do it.
It seems simplistic, but now would be the perfect time for a kid-friendly hand-washing timer. Forcing my kids to scrub their mitts for 20 seconds is a fight every time, but a countertop countdown with fun sound effects or music could be exactly what many parents need. Google and Amazon could implement something like that easily.
Google added this feature on Friday: Just say, "Help me wash my hands," and Google will set a 40-second timer and sing a song your kids may love (but you'll probably hate).
Another feature already in place and waiting to be used more: voice calls and messages. Sending quick voice calls and leaving brief messages using a smart speaker is a great way to stay connected with friends and family even if you're keeping isolated at the moment. Many users don't often use the already-existing feature, though, and Amazon and Google might benefit from prompting some of these calls to keep customers connected.
Voice assistants are the help we need right now, and they're already helping in all the ways we expect. Here's hoping they keep developing over the coming weeks and months so our quarantines can be a little more bearable.