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By 2025, 50% of knowledge workers will use a virtual PA on a daily basis – up from 2% in 2019, according to Gartner. But how will they improve our working lives?
Via email, Amy Ingram sounds like a real person. She’s friendly and efficient, and never delays in replying. My clients are probably impressed that I have the budget for a PA, but she is in fact an AI. They don’t need to know that, though. When someone emails me suggesting we have a chat on Zoom, I can write ‘@amyingram’ and she will email back with dates and times for my client to book a slot with me.
Designed by X.AI, Amy is a simple scheduling tool – with a persona. It’s a good example of how technology can take our working lives to the next level, whether you’re a solo entrepreneur running a startup or the CEO of a multinational. IBM, for example, has been working on machine learning for years, but as humans we don’t really respond warmly to anonymous bots. However, when they are presented as real people (sometimes clients don’t even realise Amy isn’t a human), we immediately feel more appreciative of their value.
What exactly are virtual assistants (VAs)? Not to be confused with human PAs who work remotely – sometimes in overseas countries such as India – these software agents are powered by artificial intelligence. (They are sometimes referred to as ‘automated’ or ‘digital’ personal assistants.) According to research and advisory company Gartner: “VAs use semantic and deep learning, natural language processing, prediction models, recommendations and personalisation to assist people or automate tasks. VAs listen to and observe behaviours, build and maintain data models, and predict and recommend actions.”
The main benefits to using a virtual personal assistant are based on saving time and money. Although there will be a cost involved, it won’t be anything near as expensive as using a human PA who expects a salary. However, as we know from conversing with Siri or Alexa, their abilities are limited to specific tasks, so you won’t be able to ask Amy to pick up your dry cleaning, for example. As the technology becomes adopted by the mainstream, now is the time to start engaging with it and see how it could work for you.
As businesses around the globe shift to hybrid working, ‘virtual offices’ – where distributed workforces come together mostly online – might find their staff benefit more than most from virtual assistants. Having the freedom to work from wherever suits you best – whether it’s the corporate HQ, home or a local flexspace – is perfectly complemented by the ability to take your assistant from place to place.
Angus Gregory, chief executive of VA software company Biomni, which has developed the Tenjin VA, was reported by Raconteur as saying: “The current crisis has made many realise they need to access their work resources from anywhere, easily and intelligently, as if they were searching on Google, whether it’s a holiday form from human resources or a pricing sheet from finance. These requests were easier when everyone was in the office. Now these tasks can be fully automated and delivered remotely.”
If you find texting and emailing a waste of time, you will be pleased to know that in years to come, there will be a wholesale shift towards voice-based interactions with VAs, with evolved versions of Google Home voice-responsive speakers appearing in offices. Speaking is almost always quicker than typing and, as AI natural language processing rates improve, voice-controlled PAs will help us multitask better (a board meeting could be concluded by verbally asking Amy to book a taxi for a director, send a transcript of the minutes or tell people what appointments they have in the afternoon).
Virtual assistants are ultimately there to empower professionals in the modern world – to help them access information promptly, organise data, respond to repetitive requests and lower staff overheads (Amy doesn’t charge an hourly rate). AI is even getting better at understanding human sentiment so, if you have had a hard day, Amy might even be able to offer emotional support. “Would you like me to order sushi from your favourite restaurant?” Or “You sound tired – how about I clear your calendar so you can take a long weekend?” It sounds a bit sci-fi, but it will become reality sooner than we think.
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