How Can I Be of Service: The Age of the Digital Assistant

Nicole Porter
  • Client Services Manager
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As we explored in our digital marketing trend predictions post at the beginning of the year, 2016 was (and with 6 months to go, still is!) set to be an exciting year for all things digital, with technologies in the pipeline that will continue to enhance the way we shop, interact with others, entertain ourselves and carry out even the most trivial of daily tasks. As well as the expected increase in video use in digital marketing, mobile platforms continuing to dominate desktop and an explosion of apps available on the market, for the first time Digital Assistants and the ‘Internet of Things’ made many of the top research companies’ trend lists (see Forbes and Clickz).

Back in the day, when our parents or grandparents imagined what the future would hold in terms of technology, it’s likely they imagined a Back-to-the-Future-like world of voice-activated appliances and personal hover boards. As much as a board that actually floats above the ground may not have quite materialised yet (at least not for the masses!), Digital Assistant technologies that help us in every aspect of our life are very much a reality in 2016…

What is a Digital Assistant?

The best way to describe a Digital Assistant is to think of the role of a PA – anticipating your needs and carrying out a range of tasks to help simplify your life. A Digital Assistant is a piece of software that is programmed to understand natural language, whether written or through voice recognition technology, in order to carry out a series of digital tasks. This is where it gets even more sophisticated – using Artificial Intelligence, a Digital Assistant can learn from the user’s behaviour over time to improve the way it predicts and delivers their requests.

The tasks Digital Assistants carry out can vary significantly, depending on their purpose and the environment in which they are used. By accessing other third-party tools (like mobile apps), they can complete any number of actions requested of them; using Shazam to name a song you have just heard on an advert, using Google to get shopping result suggestions for your mum’s birthday present, paying off an IOU, or using your calendar to schedule in a coffee and prepare a message to send to your friend to tell them where and when to meet. All this while responding in a natural, conversational way!

Types of Digital Assistant

There are several types of Digital Assistant that are available to the general consumer:

  • Voice – Uses Voice Recognition to listen to the user’s instruction and deliver a spoken response or confirmation alongside the relevant content (whether that’s a link, image, shopping result, calendar entry)
  • Text – The user types out a request (e.g. in a messaging environment) and receives a text response or confirmation alongside the relevant content
  • Chat Bot – The user is able to have a two-sided chat with the Digital Assistant as though it were a real person (e.g. a Customer Service Rep for a company), as it builds a greater understanding of the user’s likes, interests and behaviours, delivering relevant content in a conversational way

There are many more bespoke Digital Assistants that are built for specific industries or people, not necessarily available to the general public (Mark Zuckerberg’s personal project for 2016 is to build his own AI Digital Assistant to help him run his own home and work life more efficiently!)

Who Uses the Technology?

With a variety of big brands jumping on the bandwagon, not just to offer the technology as a standalone product to consumers, but as a way to enhance their existing service offering, where can we currently find Digital Assistants?

  • Mobile Operating Systems – Do you own an Android or an Apple iPhone? If so, you have Cortana or Siri at your disposal!
  • Dedicated Apps – iOS App VIV, from the founder of Apple’s Siri, was showcased at TechCrunch Disrupt earlier this year and takes the likes of Siri one step further. Able to work with third-party tools that don’t even need to be installed on the device, the creators have big plans for its eventual integration into every aspect of our lives – think home appliances and even cars!
  • Search Engines – Developed by Google, Google Now is available within Google Search on Android, iOS and Chrome web browser. It intelligently predicts what you need, before you even ask for it, and offers helpful cards that contain the information that you may find useful throughout your day
  • Social Platforms – In response to the Operating System Digital Assistants, Facebook Messenger has launched M. Not yet available in all countries (you’d need to head over to the US to give it a try!), M is a hybrid between technology-powered and people-powered digital assistants, with a team of Facebook ‘M Trainers’ on hand to make sure all requests are answered. This enables it to perform a wider variety of tasks than the likes of Siri and Cortana
  • IoT (Internet of Things) – Developing a Digital Assistant to work with specific hardware, Amazon’s Alexa integrates with the Amazon Echo – an intelligent central speaker system, that plays music, answers questions, reads to you, shops, controls lights, switches and thermostats… all through voice control through the Alexa Digital Assistant

What Next?

With the increase of IoT-enabled appliances in our home, work and social spaces, and the ever-developing sophistication of Digital Assistant technology, it is no longer just the way we use our mobile devices that is changing… the way we interact and carry out every task in our daily lives is likely to be influenced in some way.

Is this going to facilitate an increasingly lazy generation (why lean for the remote, when I can ask the TV to change channel for me)? Or does it mark the beginning of the perfect life balance (trivial day-to-day tasks are much more efficient, giving us time to do what really matters in life)? We’d love to hear your thoughts (and fears!)


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