A bit more than two decades ago, company owners or “bosses” used to have a lady as a secretary who answered landline phones all day and neatly wrote messages and appointments in her textbook.
Nowadays, we have “traditional” virtual assistants (VA) that are actually people with awesome people skills that help businesses tackle all kinds of errands ranging from mundane tasks such as schedules, appointments, meetings and conferences all the way to more complicated matters such as customer support, marketing assistants and business advisors.
Furthermore, technological advancement has started to scratch the surface of artificial intelligence (AI) enabling the possibility of AI virtual assistants. The fact is that we can see some forms of AI assistants already in use such as Apple's Siri or Microsoft's Cortana. However, they are still in their infant stages and it will take time before they reach their day of reckoning. Let's take a look at the evolution and rise of virtual assistants.
Traditional Virtual Assistants
An eternity has passed, or so it seems, since technology advanced enough for people to stop working in shifts and on potato computers and start using technology to increase productivity and efficiency. The increase of work flow due to technological advancement has also increased the necessity for virtual assistants.
Businesses started outsourcing virtual assistants, because secretaries just couldn't keep up anymore. Most traditional virtual assistants are real people who have the necessary skills to help out a business or CEO. VAs became more than useful for startups, small businesses and even some bigger companies. VAs answer phones, set up meetings and conferences, schedule tasks and help out with customers’ or clients’ questions. VA can do so much more, aside from great customer support – VAs can be great marketers, social media promoters and even executive assistants or human resources and human relations assistants.
Virtual assistants are now an invaluable resource for business, as they help improve customer relations and customer support. For example, research conducted by OfficeHQ on consumer attitudes to handling their phone inquiries is conclusive: ineffective call handling will result in lost business. Up to 70% of first time callers to businesses hang up and call a competitor when they have a bad caller experience. This is no surprise, as most of the people would prefer a nice VA to pick up the phone and answer their questions, instead of a cranky employee.
Artificial Intelligence Virtual Assistants
We have seen the great benefits that traditional virtual assistants have to offer, but for some reason, technology wants to advance AI on to that position. AI assistants mostly inhabit smartphone devices, for now. Their VA skills still can't compare to those of a traditional VA. However, technology is advancing and focusing on implementing methods that will enable AI to learn based on interacting with humans and behave more human like – meaning, AI being able to answer more complex questions and perform more complex tasks.
Giant enterprises such as Amazon, Microsoft, Google and Apple have their version of AI VA. For example, Apple's Siri has the ability to interact with some smart appliances and she is knowledgeable about sports, weather, news, local businesses and directions. She also has a non-robotic, soothing female voice. Another example is Microsoft's Cortana – she also has a soothing female voice and can help out with tasks, schedules, meetings etc. She can also gather information on weather, news and so on. Google for example doesn't have an interactive girly assistant, but they have Google Now which is a quite sophisticated voice assistant. It inhabits Android, iOS and Chrome devices and has accurate sense of direction. It also takes your personal data to create your travel plans, and book tickets and hotels. Then there is Amazon's Echo that has been embraced by over 8 million people and can order you anything you might need, including organic food.
So far these are the most advanced versions of AI VA that are still a work in progress. Some of these assistants can simulate a conversation and even crack a few jokes, but it's still a long way from mimicking actual human behavior. Of course, these giant enterprises won't stop there and leave it be. Our artificial female assistants will surely evolve further. There are other attempts at AI VA, like smart chat bots on websites but it's, as mentioned, still a work in progress.
Traditional virtual assistants offer many benefits to businesses and their owners, helping them complete a seemingly never ending list of tasks. Why would people want to replace traditional VAs with AIs is anyone’s guess. However, there is still plenty of time until machines take over… become functional assistants, that is.