Virtual assistants, also known as intelligent virtual assistants or AI assistants, are application programs that can understand natural language, communicate with users in a human-like manner, and complete various tasks for them.
They are available on computers, tablets, smartphones, gaming consoles, and even standalone devices such as Google Home and Amazon Echo. The advancements in virtual assistant artificial intelligence don’t just allow people to use their electronic devices more conveniently but offer companies an opportunity to improve their business models and significantly enhance the customer experience.
Note: While this article is about virtual assistants that are powered by AI, it’s important to note that “virtual assistant” is also a job title given to a person who provides various services to companies or entrepreneurs from a remote location.
Artificial Intelligence and Virtual Assistants
Many people consider the terms “virtual assistant” and “artificial intelligence” to be synonymous. AI is a term for intelligence that is displayed by machines. Computer scientists have used logical and mathematical theories that have been developed over the years to program AI.
A virtual assistant is a software solution that utilizes artificial intelligence to communicate with people, recognize voice commands, carry out searches, perform tasks, and control processes. By doing so, it acts as an assistant.
How do Virtual Assistants Work?
Virtual assistants require internet-connected apps or devices to work as they are typically cloud-based programs. To feed its AI platform, a virtual assistant requires a massive amount of data.
The AI that powers a virtual assistant uses natural language processing (NLP), machine learning, and a speech recognition platform. To predict the end user’s needs and learn from data input, virtual assistant artificial intelligence uses sophisticated algorithms.
A set of AI algorithms and machine learning help the virtual assistant cope with the ambiguity and breadth of natural language. However, it also requires some manually defined rules. Still, instead of being explicitly programmed, the AI learns its behavior from data. So, in a way, the virtual assistant teaches itself how to speak.
The complex pipeline of AI technology that powers virtual assistants can be difficult for a layperson to understand. However, the following explanation can help us grasp how a virtual assistant fulfills requests:
- When you install or launch a virtual assistant on a device or platform, it runs a WW (wakeword) detector. This detector listens for a particular phrase or word. When you say that phrase and the wakeword is detected, the virtual assistant activates. You may also use a push-to-talk button to activate some virtual assistants.
- Once it is active, the virtual assistant uses ASR (automatic speech recognition) to convert your speech (more specifically, the audio recording of your speech) into a textual transcription.
- Then, the virtual assistant takes that transcription and uses NLU (natural language understanding, a subfield of NLP) to predict your intention in an actionable way. Thanks to NLU, the virtual assistant is able to understand that you can make the request in a wide variety of ways and that, no matter how you make the request, the request should have the same outcome.
- To decide how it will handle the conversation, what it will say back, or whether it will take any action at all, the virtual assistant uses a DM (dialogue manager).
- To achieve two-way audio communication, the virtual assistant uses TTS (text to speech) as its output voice.
Types of Virtual Assistants
As mentioned, it is possible to develop virtual assistants for various platforms. But what really makes virtual assistants so great is the wide variety of applications they offer. While most of us are only familiar with broad-reaching virtual assistants such as Google Assistant, Cortana, and Siri, there are many narrow use case virtual assistants.
Since we live in the golden age of SaaS (software as a service), computer scientists have designed virtual assistants that can help businesses improve the customer experience, employee training and onboarding, and HR-related tasks.
For instance, a Servisbot assistant can automate customer service tasks, offering businesses a viable, low-cost call deflection solution. When it comes to automation opportunities, traditional channels are limited. This virtual assistant can quickly access knowledge bases and offer help to users. It can automate underlying tasks partially or completely while conversing with customers in a human-like manner.
There are many task-oriented virtual assistants that work together with the user to perform well-defined tasks, such as finding a mortgage recommendation and making a bank transfer. Even some manufacturing facilities have started using virtual assistants because hands-free control allows them to improve efficiency.
Everybody’s familiar with the simple operations virtual assistants can perform, like recommending music or telling us about the weather forecast, but their abilities go far beyond conducting these basic tasks.
They have the power to transform entire industries, businesses, and markets. To provide more value to users and businesses, virtual assistants are evolving day by day. We can expect them to move even deeper into business workflows.