This may be one of the funniest memes I saw this year. The idea of a major business acquisition being conducted through a virtual assistant is far-fetched, but also clever. Though we may not be at the point where large-scale deals are made through a virtual assistant, virtual assistants are impacting how we get information and changing the way we engage in business. Virtual assistants are enabling the shift away from screens to a more human-centered approach of engaging with the web and retrieving information – using our voice. With the improved capabilities and speech recognition of virtual assistants, we are beginning to see them proliferate in our daily life beyond just playing the song we ask for.
Virtual assistants are making a huge splash, predominantly in the consumer and social spaces, as people become reliant on them to perform tedious tasks quickly and efficiently. As of mid-2017, there were an estimated 1 billion users of virtual assistants worldwide and that number is rapidly increasing. In addition, Skills, the applications that extend the power of the virtual assistants, are being developed at a fast pace by third-parties--Amazon’s Alexa already has over 10,000. Opportunities for new use cases across industries continue to reveal themselves as the virtual assistant user base grows and new Skills hit the market.
Virtual Assistants, Today and Tomorrow
Virtual assistant technology really came into its own in 2017, and as we journey into 2018, more promise is on the horizon. So, what can we expect from virtual assistants in the coming years?
Smarter Virtual Assistants
Much of what virtual assistants do now are basic skills, such as retrieving data and basic computation. As natural language processing (NLP) continues to mature, virtual assistants will improve their comprehension and response capabilities, allowing for their use to become more widespread and complex. Also, as machine learning progresses,, we may see virtual assistants become smarter and begin to learn and predict customer needs.
Currently, there are several different companies developing virtual assistant technology, each targeting their own devices and hardware. For example, Microsoft’s Cortana works best with Windows 10 devices, Amazon’s Alexa works best with Amazon Devices, and Google Home uses its own platform. Consumers haven’t be able to transition between multiple platforms easily. In 2017, the first unexpected partnership developed between Microsoft and Amazon to integrate Cortana and Alexa. Alexa leads the household market, while Cortana leads the business market. This partnership may be the first step to seamless, integrated experience for customers as they move through different environments. Imagine relaxing on your couch at the end of a long day when you realize you need to reschedule a work meeting. No problem! “Alexa, ask Cortana to move my 8AM meeting to 9AM”. Done.
Integration with IoT Devices
Car speakers, smart home devices, and wearables are just a few examples where the virtual assistant is departing from its original hardware and making its way to in-context devices. These integrations ensure that virtual assistants can always be near their human and ready to support any need. It is expected that these integrations will continue at an accelerated pace throughout 2018.
Bring Your Virtual Assistant to Work – the future state
As consumers become more reliant on their virtual assistants in their personal lives, it’s expected that demand will increase for virtual assistants in the workplace, with a delineation between the consumer market and enterprise. Virtual assistants are already emerging in the workplace as taskmasters, completing repetitive tasks and freeing up time for workers to focus on more complex tasks.
Have you ever tried to arrange a meeting with three other people with busy calendars? It’s a time-consuming and frustrating job. Virtual assistant technology can extend to the personal assistant realm and handle these time consuming administrative tasks, leaving workers more time to focus on high-value tasks.
Dictation and Translation
Recording a brainstorming session or dictating a message is becoming possible thanks to natural language process (NLP) improvements. Even better, speak with a business associate in another country and a virtual assistant will translate the conversation in real-time.
Voice-control of machines
In the manufacturing world, many machines are starting to be operated through voice-control. In the office setting, it’s possible that IT solutions could be run in the same fashion. Soon, we could be joining meetings with a voice command, instead of dialing in the long meeting ID and password.
What is the future vision for virtual assistants in the business world? As we see children interact effortlessly with virtual assistants, we can assume that they're here to stay and could be embedded in all aspects of our lives in the future, including our work lives. There is already some progress being made with B2B marketing virtual assistants extending the abilities of marketing professionals to improve communications. For business operations, there is the potential for virtual assistants to become trusted collaborators while leveraging the predictive abilities of AI tools. Given the recent improvement of accuracy and intelligence of virtual assistants, coupled with the rising popularity of their use, it is not impossible to think that they will be transformative in business.
For virtual assistants to become fully trusted and completely incorporated into business, they must overcome a couple of hurdles. First, the security of the voice transmissions needs be addressed, so that businesses feel comfortable accessing confidential data through voice command. Second, workers’ comfort level in using virtual assistants must increase; they need to be thought of as useful tools, and not regarded as a passing gimmick. These are not impossible feats for virtual assistants, and will probably be resolved sooner than we think. In the meantime, we can enjoy the current capabilities of these digital companions – sit back, relax and ask your virtual assistant to turn on your favorite TV show and to order a pizza.
*Image based on tweet from @ChicagoPhotSho