You’re alone in the kitchen, preparing chicken Kiev, hands slathered to the wrist in eggs and butter, when you mutter to yourself, “What’s the next step?” Then, a soft, reassuring voice coming from somewhere in the direction of your toaster tells you: “Dip each chicken piece in the beaten egg; roll in breadcrumbs, coating evenly. . . . ”

No, this isn’t a spectral visit from Julia Child. It’s Alexa, the virtual assistant that, like a genie in a bottle, inhabits the Amazon Echo speaker, a 9.25-inch-tall, internet-­connected black cylinder (shown above) sitting on the counter nearby.

The Echo is the ears and mouth of Amazon’s virtual assistant, who “wakes” to take commands whenever you speak her name. Alexa can respond to questions and requests as varied as “Alexa, what’s the weekend forecast?” “Alexa, how did the New York Mets do last night?” “Alexa, shuffle Chill Music playlist.” “Alexa, order ‘Silver Linings Playbook’ on Blu-ray.” Even, “Alexa, dim the lights 30 percent and lower the thermostat to 68 degrees.”

Alexa responds to questions almost as quickly as a human would and seems better than other virtual assistants at responding to imprecise language. “What’s going on?” will elicit a personalized update on your calendar and on the news and weather. “Shut up” is another command she follows (without taking any noticeable offense). She can even answer from across a moderately noisy room. When stumped, Alexa politely asks you to repeat your question or admits that she doesn’t know how to respond.

Virtual digital assistants aren’t new, of course: iPhone’s Siri and the nameless assistant in Android phones have been placing our telephone calls, finding us directions, and responding to other spoken commands for years.

Amazon’s first virtual assistant appeared in 2014 as a feature of its short-lived Fire phone. The more capable Alexa made her debut later that same year, when Amazon launched the Echo speaker. She quickly caught on as an unflappable domestic aide—able to control lights, play music, and order a pizza or paper towels. Her popularity has helped Amazon sell about 3 million Alexa-controlled speakers, which include the Echo; a portable, battery-­powered version called the Tap; and a hockey puck-sized disc called the Echo Dot that will bring Alexa’s interactive magic to most any speaker.

Alexa has given Amazon a long head start in the race to bring personal assistants into the home, but competition is coming soon from the Google Home speaker (and very likely from Apple) that could leave Alexa struggling to keep up.

Google, for instance, could leverage the information it gleans from users’ Android smartphones, Google calendars, contact lists, and Gmail accounts to make its Google Home speaker an omniscient personal assistant easily capable of tasks currently beyond Alexa. Executed well, a Google home assistant could help you make a dinner reservation, send a calendar invitation to your guests, and prompt you to leave early for the restaurant if there’s ­traffic along the route from your home.

Just like the best human assistants, Alexa and her ilk can learn new skills quickly. In fact, at last count she had more than 1,400 skills and counting—up from a little more than the 100 she could do early on. All it takes is a software update beamed across the internet.

Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the September 2016 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.