Hal 9000, Jarvis from Iron Man and the Enterprise computer in Star Trek are good examples of how convenient voice-activated computers can be (when they aren't trying to kill everyone). Of course, being science fiction, those examples are a bit more advanced than what we can pull off now.
Don't get us wrong; Apple's Siri, Google's OK Google and Microsoft's Cortana are good at what they do, but they're still very limited. However, one company is starting to pull away from the competition, and people are noticing.
That company is Amazon and the gadget we're talking about is the Echo and its built-in digital assistant "Alexa." You might remember that when this sleek, cylindrical gadget first came out, it fell into the category of "Great, but why do I need it?"
The microphone and speaker hardware were top-notch. In fact, it could pick up voice commands from across the room while it was playing music. However, the best it could do was play music, some scheduling, create a grocery list, tell you the weather and stock prices ... and that was about it.
At $200, it was an expensive toy, and while a number of early adopters bought in, just about everyone else decided to wait. So, why does it look like Amazon's Echo could be the Next Big Thing with consultant Scot Wingo saying it could be a $1 billion business?
When Amazon launched the Echo, it vowed to keep adding features and integrating it with other services. It also opened up the API so other companies and developers could create their own apps or "skills" for it. And there are now more than 300 skills available.
For example, the Echo can now re-order products from Amazon at a command or call you a Lyft. It can do math conversions, guide you through a workout, find and read recipes, play adventure games and more. It's also aiming to be the center of your smart home.
Plenty of smart home gadgets already work with the Echo, and even more are on the way. That means you can adjust the temperature, turn lights on and off, and more with spoken commands.
Amazon is also licensing the Echo's Alexa programming for smart gadgets, so other future gadgets could have the same capabilities. Soon you could have a smart tea maker that lets you say, "Alexa. Tea, Earl Grey, hot."
Amazon is so confident in the Echo, which is now just $179.99, it just released two new models. The Echo Dot ($89.99) is just the brains of Echo that you connect up to speakers you already have. The Amazon Tap ($129.99) is a high-quality portable speaker that has Alexa built in.
Of course, one of the big worries with the Amazon Echo and other voice-activated gadgets is privacy. How are you sure that someone isn't spying on what you're saying or asking about?
Amazon does have strong privacy protections in place, and you manually turn off the Echo's microphones with a tap of a button. That's good enough for many people, but any gadget like this is going to be a bit of a risk in a future where governments and hackers alike want to spy on you. You'll have to decide if the convenience outweighs the risk for you.