Busy People Need Help
Today, an average person can have over a dozen individual tasks that need to be completed in any single day. Food shopping, going to work, making dinner, picking up kids from school, going to the gym, seeing a stylist, planning a vacation, doing homework, and so on. As our lives get busier and more fast-paced, we start to rush through things, which often results in lower attention to detail and subsequent less than optimal results. It becomes very clear to someone living a hectic life that outside assistance is needed. Laundry could be done by someone else, so can food preparation and appointment setting. Wouldn’t it be great if there was an assistant for every task that needs to be done or one that could do them all?
There are a few ways we approach doing things we are not experts in. We can take time to learn how to cook, or we can follow a detailed step-by-step guide. Even if we do learn how to cook, our abilities will probably be sub-par when compared to professional cooks. If we want high-quality results without spending a lot of time learning how to do something, it may make sense to ask for help. Now that cooking is covered, we hit the gym and follow the instructions of our physical trainers. We make a visit to a dietitian to get advice on how to eat healthy, we ask for financial advice because, well, who has time to monitor the stock market? What about a therapist, it would definitely be hard to let all that pent up stress out without anyone listening on the other side. Wouldn’t it also be great if someone can help pick the right dress or the right blazer for the night out?
Our current busy-life economy favors external help in many cases but it comes with a caveat, everything has a price tag. The better you want your service to be, the higher the cost. However, there is another alternative – virtual digital assistants. Over the last few years, Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Home Assistant have grown in popularity. These virtual assistants are able to schedule your appointments, remember a shopping list, review the latest news, and tell us tomorrow’s weather. On top of that, they can be expanded with an ever-growing list of skills created by third parties that provide more unique and niche features. For example, your personal and business calendars can be easily connected to a virtual assistant, which can then suggest the best time for a meeting. A cooking skill can guide you through a recipe or you can play a game like Jeopardy where the digital assistant acts as the game host. All of this while you talk to it in a normal human language. As more and more skills are being created, the versatility and utility of a virtual digital assistant are becoming more obvious. That all-knowing and skills personal assistant is slowly becoming a reality and we need to learn how to live alongside it.
The First Generation Assistants
It seems we have already established that speaking to a digital assistant is a lot more efficient than typing. There are many situations where texting is not very practical, such as when driving or having your hands occupied with tools or machinery. Voice or Conversation based user interfaces help us in those situations. This is what led us to the first generation of virtual assistants that we use today.
The current generation of digital assistants is able to provide us with the level of complexity and breadth of features which makes us consider if a large majority of our daily hustle can really be delegated to a virtual assistant. However, many still lack the basic characteristics that a human assistant would have. Both Alexa and its close competitor, Google Home, are still in the early stage of a product lifecycle and will take some time to refine.
Their AI capabilities are considered to be Specific. This means they can only do tasks or perform skills that are developed for a specific purpose. For example, if you wanted to create a shopping list, you would have to ask either platform to install a skill and then follow that skill’s instructions in order to create the list. In comparison, you don’t need to do this when speaking with a human assistant.More recently, both Google and Amazon have started to integrate some of the more routine functionality into their core assistant. This includes reminders, the above-mentioned shopping lists, calendar, and some other features: The current generation of digital assistants is able to provide us with the level of complexity and breadth of features which makes us consider if a large majority of our daily hustle can really be delegated to a virtual assistant. However, many still lack the basic characteristics that a human assistant would have. Both Alexa and its close competitor, Google Home, are still in the early stage of a product lifecycle and will take some time to refine. Their AI capabilities are considered to be Specific. This means they can only do tasks or perform skills that are developed for a specific purpose. For example, if you wanted to create a shopping list, you would have to ask either platform to install a skill and then follow that skill’s instructions in order to create the list. In comparison, you don’t need to do this when speaking with a human assistant. More recently, both Google and Amazon have started to integrate some of the more routine functionality into their core assistant. This includes reminders, the above-mentioned shopping lists, calendar, and some other features:
The change effectively indicates that third-party skill developers will now have to focus on more advanced features, for example, financial advice or retirement planning. While Google and Amazon are the big gorillas in this space, a lot of users have expressed concerns over the privacy and security of their devices. In response to that, a number of open-source initiatives have developed their own digital assistants. One of them, Mycroft, while still in the early stages and relies on volunteer developer contributions to expand its functionality, is slowly catching up to the big two.
There are a few other shortcomings with this technology that would need to be addressed before we will see more widespread adoption. In addition to the security concerns, the current ecosystem of smart home assistants and devices consists of a large number of disconnected platforms. In a recent test of my home audio system, I had to ask Alexa three separate utterings in order to play a Spotify playlist on my home audio system. Platform interoperability is much needed and would help smooth out the adoption barrier. Once the value to consumers becomes more clear and the cost of asking a home assistant to turn on a light will be less than the perceived value of getting up and hitting the light switch, I expect the interest to pick up significantly.
While the consumer side of virtual assistants is in the early growth stage, businesses have taken a bit more interest in this technology. With business use cases which include customer support, commerce, marketing, or recruitment, automating conversations has demonstrated a lot of benefits and cost savings. There are many options available on the market today, ranging from single-focused chatbot-like assistants that can be integrated into an existing website, to more complex full-fledged smart assistants that can rival Alexa in their conversational abilities and are available over multiple channels like Skype or Facebook. These digital assistants are also being integrated into smartphones, consumer appliances, and even cars. In a not too distant future, we can anticipate living among a wide range of omnipresent digital assistants that help us with everyday tasks.
Humanizing a Digital Assistant
The current generation of digital assistants operates mostly through audio and voice response. These conversations are limiting in a number of ways. A lot of information being communicated requires a visual component in order to be better understood. Videos, infographics, photos, or other visual cues can significantly increase our comprehension of the assistant’s responses. Imagine a scenario where you ask your digital assistant to compare planets in our solar system. Wouldn’t it be better if you could also see the images of the planets and their comparative size in order to fully comprehend the information being returned to you? What about physical exercise, have you tried repeating a cross-fit training activity or a yoga pose from just an audio instruction? Wouldn’t it make more sense to see what things look like? Thankfully, newer devices like Google Home Hub and Amazon Echo Show have a small screen that can do these things. I feel this is a good start.
Humans are also social beings and need to communicate with each other on a regular basis. We also like to know what the other person looks like. Body language and demeanor contribute a lot to the interpretation of what is being said. An idea that your digital assistant should also have a human image or representation does not seem too far fetched. To put this into another context we can look at how the existing virtual assistants a humanized and place them on a personable scale. At one end of the spectrum, Google’s Home Assistant pretty much lacks any personality. Although it is very useful and practical, it feels like talking to a cashier in a supermarket. Amazon’s Alexa exhibits a bit more human approach by providing its assistant with a name and a bit of personality. Conversing with it almost feels like there may be a person on the other end. Another, more niche product from x.ai, which helps with scheduling and appointment setting, took an even more personable approach. Their digital assistant has somewhat of a character that can make you believe, although for a short time, that you may be dealing with an actual human being.
In our daily lives, we can potentially be dealing with a lot of different smart devices. Smartphones while on the go, cars when driving, computer screens at work, home digital assistants at home. Many science fiction or futuristic movies portray the idea that there was a single digital assistant that seamlessly went from screen to screen as a person moved on the street or a hologram that followed you as you go about your daily life. While this technology is probably a few decades away, we can already start to think about adding more human personality to existing digital assistants. Imagine a future where you can pick what your assistant looks like and what kind of character does she or he has. While it may be hard to predict if one type of digital assistant will prevail or if we will live in an ecosystem where various services or businesses have their own digital representative, humanizing a digital assistant would provide a seamless experience where you can continue a conversation as you move from your house to your car and so on while speaking to the same digital personality.
Future of Personal Digital Assistants
Today, digital personal assistants are already becoming an inseparable part of our lives. While the adoption has been slower than most would like, they are steadily becoming more integrated into our daily activities. Some of the more common uses include directions, a product or information search, productivity tools, and even commerce. It is hard to deny the value and utility this automation brings to busy lifestyles. The next generation of digital personal assistants may include a personable interface that uses both audio and visual communications, comprised of multiple features integrated into a single assistant that can help with productivity, cooking, exercise, and many other activities. It will also likely have a human personality and a visual character that can become an inseparable part of it. In the further future, a holographic representation that follows us everywhere we go and can be summoned on demand seems like a possibility. Also importantly, many of the current flaws will be addressed. A personal digital assistant will be secure, likely attached to a unique cryptographic key in a blockchain. It will be cost-efficient, with a large marketplace from multiple vendors that provide features tailored to a specific audience. It will also easily integrate with other smart devices and become an inseparable part of our lives just as smartphones have done over the last decade. Personal customizations will be used to create unique personalities for each assistant based on cultural and personal preferences.
A final thought on how a future digital assistant may look like involves human emotion. All current assistants lack real emotion in both their responses and understanding. This may not seem like much for simple interactions like turning on the alarm or asking for a recipe, but when we think about something like a personal trainer or a therapist, the emotional aspect of an interaction between a person and an assistant becomes much more important. When we speak, thousands of changes in our body language or microexpressions tell us a bigger story than what is being said. It is an inseparable part of how we communicate and understand each other. A few companies are already experimenting with this concept and have developed technology to recognize your current emotional state as well as provide an emotional response to a machine. I think it’s not unfathomable to imagine a future digital assistant that is smart, intelligent, and communicates to us on an emotional level.