Monday, December 5, 2016

Will 2017 Be a Breakthrough Year for Virtual Personal Assistants?

"The rise of intelligent agents will affect many industries. Customer service will change. Virtual assistants will handle the drudgery of complaining to airlines about lost luggage or delayed flights."

By Alexandra Suich

Not long ago, a startup founder in San Francisco was trying to organise a meeting with someone visiting from Europe, and setting a time required dozens of e-mails back and forth. The European arrived with a bottle of wine for the founder’s personal assistant, Clara, as a gesture of thanks for putting up with the scheduling hassle. But the assistant could not accept the gift. Clara is a software service from a startup of the same name that helps schedule meetings via e-mail. It is powered by artificial intelligence (AI), with some human supervision. One day it will need no help from human beings at all.

January will mark ten years since Steve Jobs unveiled Apple’s iPhone and ushered in the smartphone revolution. The coming year will also be another landmark one for the smartphone and mark a turning-point in how deeply and seamlessly people interact with their personal devices via AI. Software secretaries, otherwise known as “intelligent agents”, are already on the market. But they are about to become both more commonplace and more sophisticated.

Virtual personal assistants will take two forms. Some services, such as Clara and its competitor, will perform only specific tasks, such as scheduling meetings via e-mail, which saves consumers time. Others will try to provide more broad-based services, offering information and responding to requests to play music or buy things for their masters. Software will get to know its boss and her tastes so well that in time it will come close to doing what a real-life personal assistant can do.

There are several reasons for believing that 2017 will be a breakthrough year for virtual personal assistants. One is that they are a priority for every big technology company, including Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Samsung, as well as a swarm of startups. They all want to win users’ loyalty and embed themselves further in consumers’ lives.

In addition, after years of hype, companies are making real strides in AI. This will not only improve the accuracy of virtual assistants but also broaden their skills beyond simple tasks, like searching for restaurants nearby.

And, finally, devices that host personal-assistant technology are becoming ubiquitous, and consumers are growing more comfortable with using them. This will provide an added incentive for companies to improve these services quickly.

Read the rest here.

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