In mood for some music? Your smartphone is next to you, waiting to be accessed.
But your hands are messed up in preparing a delicious lunch! What to do?!
“Hey Alexa! Play Believer by Imagine Dragons” (I’m just hung up on this song right now!)
And you are set to groove!
That’s just one of the very simple ways in which virtual assistants have slowly and steadily integrated themselves in our lives. They have become our go-to resource when searching for information, scheduling our tasks, and completing many more day-to-day tasks. They offer us an intuitive way to deal with these tasks, without forcing us out of our comfort zone of natural language. They are quick in responding and over time, have become a lot more ‘human’.
Call them digital assistant, virtual assistant or voice assistant, they have come a long way since their first appearance in the form of Siri back in 2011. Rolling forward 8 years, they are now present with us wherever we go, ready to come to our aid whenever we need. They are essentially an agent or app which is capable of interaction via text or natural language. They can exist in many forms, as an app in a smartphone or desktop, or integrated into a smart speaker. They can also be called up in specific apps or services. Be it Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana or Google Assistant, they are all powered by AI. With the ground-breaking developments in Machine Learning and Natural Language Processing, we are starting to the value of this kind of voice-enabled AI in more complex scenarios including business settings.
A point to be noted here is that these virtual assistants are not to be confused with chat bots. Chat bots are mainly deployed by companies to accomplish a specific task. For instance, they can help you book a ticket, buy some product or get information about a service. Virtual assistants can function across multiple domains. You can ask Google Assistant to send a text by dictating the content, and the very next minute you can ask it to pull up a 5-day weather forecast. All you need to do is call them with a wake-word.
The more you interact with them, the smarter these assistants become. They ‘learn’ your preferences over time, and tailor their actions accordingly. You search for the results of your favorite football team twice or thrice, and from the next time, these virtual assistants will automatically start giving you updates on your team without you asking. The accuracy with which they interpret natural language and distinguish between similar sounding words during voice searches has improved remarkably over the past half a decade. And the only way is forward for them.
The road hasn’t been smooth for these assistants, and there are many more hurdles to come. Many people are still reluctant in embracing modern tech and do not wish to have voice interactions with a computer. Moreover, there have been privacy concerns surrounding these assistants and cynics of every age suspect virtual assistants of eavesdropping. Though manufacturing companies claim that these assistants record audio only after they are triggered by designated wake-words, the microphones do listen even when idle as they have to be able to hear the wake-words. Glitches do occur, and there have been reports of assistants recording private conversations with their having said the wake-word. But privacy concerns haven’t stopped people from reaching out to these virtual assistants. Smart speakers are being sold in millions and technology research firms even report that there will be almost as many voice-enabled assistants as people in the world by 2021.
Every technological development has its pros and cons. As the debate on whether AI and virtual assistants are the ‘stairway to heaven’ or the ‘highway to hell’ rages on, AI keeps making advances and continues to show promises to build a bright future for humanity. As we march forward towards a better human-computer collaboration, virtual assistants hold the key to taking human-computer connectivity to the next level. I, for one, would be thrilled to have a Jarvis of my own.