The availability and use of digital virtual assistants—software-based artificial intelligence services that do things for you—is about to explode.
Today, we think of the all-purpose assistants like Google Now, Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana, Facebook’s M and Amazon’s Alexa. To some degree, we feel compelled to choose which we’ll use.
Sometimes that choice is easy. If we’re Apple fans and iPhone users, then we’ll probably choose Siri. If we’re Google fans and Android users, we’ll probably choose Google Now. No matter what, most current users prefer one over the others and tend to see it as an either/or choice.
There’s a surprising business benefit for the big companies to create highly complex virtual assistants. For example, Siri was a stand-alone iOS app before it was a core feature of iOS (that was before Apple bought the startup that created Siri).
When Siri was a mere app, it functioned in only three categories—restaurant reservations, travel and movie tickets. Now, Apple has turned it into an all-purpose app that gives you the weather, does currency conversion and wittily answers questions about the meaning of life.
Why did Apple want Siri to do everything, rather than just three things? And, for that matter, why do all the major tech companies—Google, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook and Amazon—all insist on creating virtual assistants that are generalists, rather than specialists?
In fact, these assistants, with the exception of Facebook’s M, also involve the incredibly complex feature of automated voice recognition. Google Now, Siri, Cortana and Alexa all have to understand human speech, find the best answer and deliver it with a humanlike reply. Facebook’s M needs only to understand text, which still requires some complex processing. These services involve voice recognition, artificial intelligence, vast databases of knowledge, personalization and natural language replies.
These virtual assistants are highly complex, difficult and expensive for these companies on multiple levels. The benefit of this breadth and complexity is that no small startup could ever do it.
With an explosion or revolution of virtual assistant services and products just around the corner, the big, deep-pocket companies are relying on the cost and complexity of their products to thwart potential competition from innovative, new assistants created by startups.
What startups are doing in ever increasing numbers is launching specialized virtual assistants that function in a more limited way or deal with a narrow category of information.
At the current rate of development, we can expect to see several specialized virtual assistant products or services each for banking, insurance, health care, law enforcement, law and other professions.
Most of these will be built by startups, and many of these startups will build their products with open APIs offered by the major artificial intelligence companies. Similarly, we can expect to see these companies subscribing to huge datasets or using free and open APIs. They’ll leverage third-party voice recognition engines and other components.
Virtual assistants are not just for professionals. Consumers will get virtual assistant platforms exclusively focused on cooking, shopping, fitness, self help and psychology, home automation, cars, travel and more.
A company called ToyTalk already created separate virtual assistant platforms for Hello Barbie and Thomas & Friends Talk to You platforms—two virtual reality systems for children only, and each different from the other.
There are even companies working on the idea of enabling users to build their own artificial intelligence agents. A company called Arya offers roll-your-own virtual assistants, but requires you to supply your own data.
We can also expect to see virtual assistant features built into apps as an interface. The main point will be the app, but the virtual assistant features will function as the only way to interface with that app.
Why Your Digital Virtual Assistants Will Need a Virtual Manager
Virtual assistant platforms will specialize along the lines of language and education level and—most importantly—focus exclusively on the needs of the app that they’re installed in.
As a result, within five years, any professional adult can expect to be using several, dozens or even more than 100 different narrowly focused virtual assistant platforms.
There will be so many that it will become a management problem, similar to the problem we now have of having too many mobile apps at our disposal.
But we’ll assemble these virtual assistants as a virtual staff. And I believe we’ll also get virtual assistants whose sole function is to interface with us and manage the staff. Yes, a virtual manager for our staff of virtual assistants.
That’s different from what we have now. For example, Apple brings in data components from Bing and Wolfram Alpha that are managed by Siri. But these aren’t virtual assistants; they’re datasets. And I don’t get to add my own components or plug-ins.
Amazon’s Alexa is open to third-party developers, and many other companies have supported it. But these aren’t fully managed by Alex, and they’re not virtual assistants, either. The way it works for the user is that an Alexa command that you have to memorize kicks you over to the functionality of the third-party app. Because this requires memorization and because some of the apps don’t always work right, many of the Alexa apps are barely ever used.
What we need is a virtual assistant who can tell which of the add-on assistants can best handle a sudden and arbitrary interaction. It needs to recognize the voice of the user and engage only with that user’s staff of assistants. Then, it needs to instantly evaluate the question or request, and assign it on the fly to one or more of the assistants.
Importantly, the response engines for these replies should (and I think will) come from the special-purpose virtual assistant, not the “manager.” The reason is that different agents will engage with different facets of the user. A work-related agent will need a tone of detached professionalism. A fitness virtual assistant will have a gung-ho coaching attitude. A psychology assistant will respond appropriately to the mood or emotional state of the user.
Imagine you’re a startup with a staff of five people—a designer, developer, lawyer, office manager and IT person. The language, tone and style of interaction between, for example, the developer and the lawyer are going to be completely different. In the staff meeting, you’ll switch modes of thought and contexts and problem sets when turning from the developer to the lawyer.
Our virtual assistants will function in the same way. You’ll be able to summon any of them by requesting that assistant from the virtual manager.
The world of virtual assistant services is still in its infancy, but it’s starting to heat up. The biggest trend now is invisible, but all-important: Specialist companies are opening up their A.I., databases, voice recognition technology and more to other companies. That means tiny startups with great ideas but shallow pockets can build incredibly powerful virtual assistant services, and they’re doing so. They’ll compete by hyper-specialization.
Meanwhile, the competition among the biggest players is heating up as well. As virtual assistants get more useful—and are used more—they’ll become one of the main reasons each user chooses or rejects platforms, such as Android, iOS, Windows, Facebook Messenger or Echo.
Both professionals and consumers will benefit from all this competition.
It seems inevitable that we’ll soon have so many virtual assistant options that we’ll end up with a staff of assistants that will need a capable manager.
Because who has time to manage all those assistants?