16 January 2017

FUTURE TRENDS - The Rise of the Virtual Assistant

Increasingly, the term “virtual assistant” refers to two entirely separate ideas.

On the one hand are the Virtalent and Zirtual assistants – remote human help that can, according to many, be the “secret weapon” busy people need in order to find those few extra hours that can make a huge difference in productivity and work-life balance.

The market for these virtual assistants has hit a significant boom in the last few years, and is tied in with the gig economy.

Virtual assistants are enabling anyone to access their own personal assistant, in a similar fashion to Uber allowing anyone to hire their own valet.

The gig economy opens up potential for both service providers and users, although it has definite limitations and drawbacks.

Zirtual is an interesting exception to the gig focus of most virtual assistants – CEO Maren Kate Donovan was committed to an employment model rather than a gig model, and all Zirtual assistants were employees with benefits.

But the cost of an employee is 20-30% higher than the cost of an independent contractor, and Zirtual wasn’t able to keep up.

The company is back up and running, but the business model has changed.

Although the goal of hiring employees rather than contractors is arguably more effective at providing a living wage to support a sustainable workforce, the gig economy challenges that model.

As the market for human virtual assistants continues to grow, the term now also, and perhaps more commonly, refers to the Siris, Alexas, and Cortanas that are virtual not because they are remote, but because they are digital.

With the arrival of Amazon’s Alexa on the Intelligent Virtual Assistant (IVA) scene, it’s clear that IVA’s are just beginning to make an impact.

The global market is changing as users become more comfortable engaging in conversations with computers, and IVA technology continues to improve.

There are a wide variety of Intelligent Virtual Assistants currently available.

Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana are the most well-established, but Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Voice Search/Google Now are gaining traction.

And there are new technologies on the horizon, with Viv, from the creator of Siri, promising a much more seamless conversational interaction and a wider variety of services.

These new iterations of the current IVA technology have the potential to once again change the way humans interact with their computers.

Voice activation and voice control, particularly when paired with a responsive interface, could free up a significant amount of time for users.

The ability to ask questions in a natural and conversational flow, and get answers that are relevant and precise, would cut out a lot of piece-by-piece information assembly on the human side.

Artificial intelligence is already disrupting the economy, and is just one part of the move towards automation.

It will impact job creation and job availability for more than just the human virtual assistants who may be replaced by IVA devices and services.

However, humans have adapted to new technology before.

This new wave of advancement is coming faster than previous waves, but there is hope

Manual, creative, and interpersonal roles will remain in the hands of humans for the foreseeable future.

And although IVAs represent an exciting and accessible new technology to save time and provide useful services, it’s unlikely that even a service like Viv could replace human virtual assistants in every instance.

Not only has this technology not caught up to humans when it comes to interactivity and intuition, there are also ongoing mishaps, such as Alexa’s recent dollhouse purchasing spree (and the security and privacy issues that this highlights).

The gig economy and the rise of automation are already intersecting, not only with virtual assistants and Intelligent Virtual Assistants, but also with Uber and their flagship fleet of self-driving cars, and in other areas.

It’s an intersection of technology and economics that is, and will continue to be, important to watch.

About Tiffany Sostar
Tiffany is a writer, editor, academic, and animal lover who came late to her appreciation of pets. At 18, a rescue pup named Tasha saved her from a depression and she hasn't looked back. She has worked as the canine behaviour program coordinator for the Calgary Humane Society, and was a dog trainer specializing in working with fearful and reactive dogs for many years. She doesn't have any pets right now, but makes up for it by giving her petsitting clients (and any dogs she comes across on her frequent coffee shop adventures) extra snuggles.

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