Virtual Assistants

The rise of the personal digital assistant

We live in a fast-paced world with daily agendas packed full of meetings and jobs to be done, flooded with information about everything and everyone. Information inundates us from multiple sources, often resulting in a mental overload: television, radio, newspapers, magazines, company newsletters, internet news, social networks, app alerts, the people around us. We are fed sport results we don’t even care about, weather forecasts for places on the other side of the globe. Sometimes relying on calendars to store and keep track of upcoming events and to-dos just isn’t sufficient for staying on top of our busy lives. Behold the birth of the first Personal Digital Assistant (PDA).

What is the digital assistant and what is it good for?

PDAs are useful not only for creating calendar events or quick internet searches by voice, but also as personalised news feeds. They are convenient to use and save time. Essentially, they act as cognitive agents who process heaps of information on our behalf, evaluating and guiding our daily decision making processes as we go.

Decision making is key

Your digital assistant can suggest when you should leave your house, which route to take to avoid traffic, where to have a coffee or lunch in the vicinity, where to stay for the night when travelling, where it is cheapest to fuel up when driving, and much more. Humans are biased and we often incorrectly base our decisions on isolated absolutes: we are willing to drive across town just to save 5% on groceries or other items, but we don’t factor in the money we would spend on getting there and back (fuel for the car or tickets for the public transport). 

The first generation of digital assistants

The digital assistants of the generation we use today were first introduced in the early 2000s, beginning with the so-called Hound. Hound implemented a natural way for users to request information. The questions can be straight-forward, such as “what time is it in London,” or quite complex and include follow up questions. PDAs were not made equal, however.

Email assistants

Amy is an electronic mail digital assistant. You can send her an email asking her to arrange dinner with a few of your friends for the following week. She will check your availability based on your calendar and send the friends an email to confirm theirs. She can also send follow up questions and try to find the best possible time for all parties. Amy can be useful to you once you are aware of her limitations: she uses your calendar as her main source of data and unless you schedule every minute of your day in it, she wouldn’t know whether you’re available or not.

The Facebook text messaging system

Facebook M is the company’s AI-powered assistant that lives inside of the Messenger application. It offers suggestions based on your conversations with friends, as well as a few additional useful features, like birthday reminders to help you avoid a potential social faux pas.

Digital assistants with personalities

The new generation of digital assistants is really “personal”. They can effortlessly engage in human-like conversations, thanks to their sophisticated personalities, and in many cases can act like a real buddy, throwing jokes around, offering fun facts, providing sarcastic answers or pretending to be offended by something you said.

Smart predictions

Today it doesn’t really matter if you choose Amazon’s Alexa, Siri, Cortana or Google Assistant to make your life more convenient. All of them can help accomplish similar tasks in their own way, with a few exceptions. Google Assistant, for example, acts slightly differently than the rest. Instead of passively waiting for your commands, it actively works in the background, perusing multiple data sources (including emails, calendars, your search and browsing history) as it tries to anticipate what you would like to do next and provide you with the options before you even ask. It offers you traffic and flight information, weather warnings, your work or home location, package deliveries, available parking locations and much more. This is the direction, which all digital assistants are anticipated to take soon.

Will digital assistants improve our lives?

Although virtual assistants have come a long way to-date, they are not quite ready for prime time and will not turn into your personal Jarvis just yet. Sometimes they don’t quite know what you are asking for. The internet is now ripe with funny and at the same time scary videos of kids talking to digital assistants. Kids are usually unable to speak clearly enough for the assistant to grasp the commands, resulting in unfortunate misunderstandings, where instead of the requested cartoon the digital assistant could, for example, start playing porn on a connected TV.

Some of the assistants require manually setting up Uber and other services before starting to be useful. Even if there are still some limitations, the technology is admittedly progressing quickly with advances in machine learning and AI. The virtual assistants can already accomplish a number of useful things for us like search the web, play music or video on a connected television set or stereo, schedule a meeting, book a table in a restaurant, control other connected IoT devices, such as lights, appliances, thermostats, doors, cameras, etc.

The price of convenience

Do we need to give up anything for the convenience provided by virtual assistants? Our AI-powered pet devices observe us 24/7 and know everything about us, our lives and habits. We inadvertently lose our privacy and freedom and succumb large volumes of very personal data to the cloud. An example is the newly released controversial AI-powered Barbie doll, capable of having human-like conversations. At the press of a button she bombards users with a series of questions in an interrogation-like fashion and swiftly collects a load of info about them (in most cases unsuspecting youth).

The assistants of the future should be held to certain ethical and privacy standards and ultimately enhance our abilities rather than limit them. The price of a highly personalised experience shouldn’t amount to giving up all privacy and the ability to choose. 

Copywriter: Ina Danova

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