Technology like Amazon's Alexa and Apple's Siri has some way to go before it can fulfill the promise of being true digital assistants, according an expert in information and communications.

There will also be inevitable friction between progress and privacy as the technology improves, according to Dr Benjamin Cowan of the ADAPT SFI Research Centre, who is an Assistant Professor in Information and Communications Studies at UCD. 

A growing number of Irish homes now have at least one smart assistant, while every smartphone on the market now has a voice-activated assistant designed to answers questions and commands.

However the growth of these digital assistants has had its problems - not only in how people interact with them, but also the privacy issues they create.

Some of those challenges are up for discussion at a two-day, international taking place in Dublin's Science Gallery.

"There's a sense that the interactions that we have with [digital assistants] are generally more question and answer -  you ask a command and they give you the information they want," said Dr Cowan.

"We've got a lot of experts coming into Dublin talking about how we go to the next step. How do they deliver on the promise of truly conversational interaction - and even should we be going that far?"

The stumbling block many digital assistants face is understanding normal language - which may include colloquialisms delivered in a thick accent. That often forces users to speak in an unnatural, deliberate fashion - while also sticking to set terms and commands in order to get a response.

According to Dr Cowan, the technology is actually relatively well advanced in many ways - but it can often fall down when it comes to its interactions with the user.

"The technology in terms of how it recognises your speech and also how it produces really natural speech as output is actually pretty good right now," he said. "If we want to go conversational we really need to analyse what it is that we're doing in coversation - what's the structure of conversation, how does a machine converse with us in a normal, natural way?

"We need to get good data for doing that; we also need to try to understand the structure of those conversations."

Though Dr Cowan also says that the question needs to be asked whether such conversational interactions are actually necessary - or whether the simple command and response will suffice.

Part of the challenge in moving the technology on is the requirement for data - which ultimately must from users.

Recently a number of digital assistant providers - namely Amazon, Google and Apple - were found to be listening to snippets of users' commands and conversation as part of their attempts to improve the technology.

Dr Cowan says that, as it stands, there is no middle ground between this kind of R&D and user privacy.

"At the moment the industry is gagued towards using that data to improve their machine learning techniques and artificial intelligence techniques that are used to really drive these systems," he said. "We can't really improve these systems and go further without that data."

Again, he said it is still a source of debate as to whether the technology needs to go down this path at all.

Part of that depends on the function that digital assistants provide.

For many they are currently a novelty - or at most a shortcut to getting information, controlling a smart home device or pulling up a song they like.

They could be put to more serious uses, however, depending on the direction the industry takes.

"We may see this being used in situations where you would see conversation being really important in delivering, for instance, healthcare and home care," Dr Cowan said. "There's a lot of drive in those fields at the moment trying to figure out how these types of voice and language systems could be used in those contexts.

"At the moment we're at the situation where people are using this as a way of getting information, they're playing around with it and it has a bit of a novelty aspect to it. But it does have huge uses at the moment, too. If you're driving and you want to get a piece of information, or if you're making dinner and you want to get a recipe you can use these systems and they're great for that."