The Rise of the Digital Assistant

AI powered assistants lend a hand

You’ve heard of Siri, Viv, Cortana and Echo – you’ve probably even used one of them. Powered by Artificial Intelligence, these increasingly clever digital assistants provide the user with instant access to information, from the weather forecast to amusing trivia. The most well-known of the bunch is probably Siri, developed by Apple and built in to all iPhones, iPads and Macs as standard. However, companies like Microsoft, Amazon and Google have released their own assistants. Samsung being the most recent tech giant to develop a competing product, revealing its new PA at the beginning of the month. In October, Samsung stated that it would acquire the AI startup that created Viv, and integrate their own assistant into the new line of Galaxy S8 phones. Why are digital assistants so popular, and what disruption will their wider adoption cause?

For a busy, working individual, having a digital assistant is incredibly helpful. They send notifications, alarms, updates and suggestions, all based on user preference. Humans interact with the assistants via speech, which is the most natural form of communication. Want to know what the traffic is like on your commute? Want to book a weekend getaway? Fancy ordering a pizza? Digital assistants can sort that for you – all you have to do is ask. Of course, currently it’s not quite that simple. Assistants can misinterpret commands, relay irrelevant information or simply not know the answer to a question. They are gradually learning from every query and choice that is made, tailoring themselves to suit the needs of the user. This will take time, and therefore patience.

One of the most important capabilities of digital assistants is how they work with third party apps like Facebook Messenger, but some assistants such as Amazon’s Alexa still struggle with outside apps. With continued research, these problems will be gradually overcome. Most digital assistants are mobile-based, but it’s not all about phones – Samsung plans to incorporate its new platform into home appliances and wearables, too. It won’t be the first company to do this – take Apple’s EarPods, for example, or Google Home. Funnily enough, competing digital assistants are aware of their rivals. When asked about Alexa, the Google Assistant benevolently stated that it liked her voice.

How disruptive are digital assistants?
Digital assistants have the potential to be hugely disruptive. They are set to change the way that people search for information, making it part of regular conversation. This could even disrupt the current success of web browsers – which explains why Google is so keen to create a popular digital PA. Using digital assistants every day will change society’s view of machines, making them an integral part of our lives. Domestic platforms are marketed at entire families, socialising children to interact with technology. They can also be integrated with smart home connectivity, taking their ability to understand and organise human lives to another level. The rise of digital assistants, regardless of which corporation creates them, is a mass enabler for the expansion of AI. It also signifies the move to vocal interaction as the key medium for human-to-machine communication. Whilst digital assistants themselves are unlikely to cause significant disruption to employment, they may remove the need for human PAs. Why pay somebody when a machine could do the same thing for you, for a one off fee? They could also replace the middleman in online searches – which could be a potential problem for sites like JustEat. Digital assistants may even present a challenge to chatbots, as they can hold a more engaging, human-like conversation with the user.

Digital assistants in business. . .
The rise of digital assistants has encouraged businesses to invest in a digital presence, so that searches conducted by AI PAs identify them and suggest them to human users. In Silicon Valley circles, more and more tech giants are going head-to-head in an attempt to create the most comprehensive assistant. Whilst this might be intimidating for a young AI company, there’s potential for AI startups to be acquired by massively influential corporations. An example is Viv Labs, the startup that created Viv, which was recently acquired by Samsung. As consumers become more familiar with AI platforms, businesses will be able to use them with less worry of alienating wary customers.

For an individual with a busy schedule, digital assistants are great. In many ways, they’re also a fantastic opportunity for businesses to expand their customer base and make the most of digitalisation. For middleman sites, however, they could be problematic. As far as societal disruption goes, digital assistants are set to change the way that we organise our lives, becoming the first point of call for any question and normalising human-to-machine communication. This change will only be accelerated by the continued adoption of digital PAs within the domestic sphere. There’s now so much interaction between conversational interfaces that the lines between them are becoming blurred. . . the question is, will digital assistants come out on top – and which of them will be the most successful? At the moment, Siri still looks to be in the lead. . . but we’ve yet to see what exactly what new rivals like Samsung have to offer.

Have you, or do you, use a digital assistant? Could a digital assistant find your business for a potential customer? Which company will come out on top in the race to create the best product? Share your thoughts and experiences.