A Virtual Assistant -also called digital assistant or chatbot- is an software agent that understands human voice commands and is able to complete tasks for the user.
It´s been a long time since IBM Shoebox, the first tool enabled to perform digital speech, was presented to the general public in 1962. This machine would recognize 16 words spoken into its microphone and convert those sounds into electrical impulses. A prehistoric artifact compared to current popular software like Siri (Apple), Google Now, Amazon Alexa, Alisa (Yandex) or Cortana (Microsoft) that most smartphone users already know.
Today´s Virtual Assistants use natural language processing (NLP) to match user text or voice input to executable commands, and learn from experience using Artificial Intelligence techniques like Machine Learning. In computer science a Software Agent, like the Virtual Assistants analyzed in this text, is a computer program that acts for a user or other program in a relationship of agency, this is an agreement to act on one’s behalf. Since all agents are programs, but not all programs are agents some distinctions must be made. According to Franklin & Graesser (as we can read in their paper “Is it an Agent, or just a Program?: A Taxonomy for Autonomous Agents“) there are 4 key notions that distinguish agents from arbitrary programs: reaction to the environment, autonomy, goal-orientation and persistence.
It´s evident in our history that the relationship between human beings and machines has enormous potential, that´s why Intelligent Virtual Assistants are one of the most promising branches of Artificial Intelligence and the world of the Internet of Things. According to a study by Transparency Market Research (TMR) in the near future the Virtual Assistant market is expected to grow at a remarkable 32.8% CAGR (Compound Annual Growth Rate ) from 2016 to 2024. The expanding traffic on Social Media platforms is also prompting the development of this Talking Artifacts in industries such as sales, banking, insurance, travel, healthcare, and government.
The cultural effects of the implementation of Software Agents must be deeply investigated. For example, since the world population ageing is enduring -as reported by the United Nations- maybe this Virtual Assistants could help palliate the loneliness of the elders or assist people with neurogenerative diseases like alzheimer. We should seek solutions for this phenomenon and it´s profound implications for many facets of human life in the development of this kind of new machines.
Whether this Autonomous Agents become the primary way we interface with technology remains to be seen. However with the help of techniques like Machine Learning and the diffusion of this innovations this Virtual Assistants will become increasingly more capable and even if they don’t overtake the way we use our personal devices, they will for sure have a large amount of prominence in the behind-the-scenes work and the mechanics of our technologies.
*(Picture: guided-selling.org & ibmm.com)