This article was originally published in March 2020, and updated in February 2023 to better reflect the latest in chatbot, digital human, generative AI, and voice and virtual assistant technology.
In a business world brimming with buzzwords, the technology industry perhaps deserves a special mention for its love affair with jargon.
Abbreviations, initialisms and acronyms are everywhere, making some techspeak almost impenetrable to casual listeners. You’ve probably heard of VR or virtual reality, but what about AR? Or MR? or XR? And that’s just one small example. It’s enough to give anyone a headache.
Even those technologies that aren’t commonly made into acronyms can be vague at first sight. Like what is a virtual assistant? It’s a more complicated question than you might think. On the one hand, it does exactly what it says on the tin; a virtual assistant is something that assists you but does not exist physically. Software, in other words.
On the other hand, various technologies broadly fit this description. Chatbots, search engines and digital humans all technically provide virtual assistance – are they all virtual assistants? Not quite, so let’s clarify what we mean by ‘virtual assistants’, as well as look at some examples, explore the pros and cons and think about what the future holds for such technologies.
What is a virtual assistant?
Intelligent virtual assistants, or intelligent personal assistants as they’re sometimes known, are conversational AI-driven programs that can understand natural language and complete tasks based on your spoken commands. Whether it’s to search for information, set reminders, schedule events or order a pizza, we’re relying more and more on these technologies to organise our lives.
And if you think these devices are somewhat prevalent now, they’re just getting started. Research from OC&C shows that by voice devices managed $40 billion in shopping transactions last year, growing from $2 billion in 2018.
The terms virtual assistant and chatbot are sometimes used interchangeably, but most people – us included – believe there is an important distinction between the two. Chatbots communicate mostly through text; virtual assistants are often voice-activated. In fact, they’re often called voice assistants to avoid this confusion.
But there’s a world of difference between basic virtual assistants, which are little more than command and control systems (“lights on”/”lights off”), and the most sophisticated platforms that can contextualise conversations.
The types of virtual assistants available today
You’re probably familiar with at least some of the AI-powered virtual assistants that people are using day to day. And a decent chunk of consumers are using them every day – 27%, according to Salesforce Research. This figure is only likely to rise further as they become more integrated into our homes, devices and vehicles.
Let’s look at a few examples:
Apple’s Siri is the virtual assistant that put the concept of voice-activated AI software on the map. First released as an app in 2010, Siri was swiftly acquired by Apple and has been a mainstay of the company’s devices since the iPhone 4S. With a casual “Hey Siri” or a button press, you can activate Siri – which stands for Speech Interpretation Recognition Interface (there’s those pesky acronyms again).
All of the standard commands are available: you can call people, ask questions, search for websites, set alarms and reminders, open apps and more. If you’re ever bored, there are also hundreds of tongue-in-cheek answers Siri will give when you ask particular questions. She’s probably the sassiest of the voice assistants, although she might need to work on her delivery a bit…
It took Google until 2016 to release its own flagship virtual assistant AI software. But at least one study puts it at the top of the pile in terms of both understanding queries and answering them correctly. The Loup Ventures team asked Google Assistant, Siri and Amazon’s Alexa 800 questions each, and Google Assistant was the only one to understand 100% of queries, answering 92.9% correctly.
Google Assistant’s name is a bit uninspired, but the company continues to pour money and resources into the software, so it has very powerful AI. Google, unlike Apple, is also a bit more open to playing with others, so Google Assistant is available on many different platforms. Earlier this year, the company announced 500 million people are now using its virtual assistant AI worldwide.
The Loup Ventures research cited above showed Alexa may not be the best-performing virtual assistant – it answered less than 80% of questions correctly – but it’s certainly one of the most popular. Amazon had sold around 100 million Alexa-powered gadgets by January 2019 (five years after its release) but had more than doubled this figure just a year later.
The Alexa-powered Echo dominates the home smart speaker market, meaning this virtual assistant is a favourite for helping out around the house. Need recipes? Give Alexa a shout. Lost your phone? She can help you find it. Want to stream TV or music? No problem, Alexa has you covered. Unsurprisingly, buying products (primarily through Amazon, naturally) is also a cinch.
If you want a virtual assistant for your PC, Cortana is Microsoft’s offering into the market. You may have an Apple or Android phone, for example, but use a PC with a Windows operating system, which is where Cortana can bridge the gap. Integration with Microsoft software such as Office 365 and Outlook is especially useful for the hundreds of millions of people who use these programs every month.
A potential downside is that Microsoft products, including Cortana, typically rely on Bing as a search engine. That’s not to say there is anything wrong with Bing, but Google has more than a 90% share of the market, while Bing languishes on less than 3%. Also, Cortana has fallen behind its rivals, leading Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella to admit the company no longer considers the virtual assistant to be a competitor to Google Assistant or Alexa. Ouch.
The pros and cons of virtual assistants in 2023
Now that you’re familiar with some of the virtual assistants out there, here are a few pros and cons to mull over:
- Convenience: users have a wealth of knowledge at their fingertips (or lips?) and can automate many mundane, time-consuming activities with just a sentence or two.
- Accessible and inclusive: AI-powered voice assistants can break down barriers for people with disabilities, whether sensory, physical or cognitive. Voice interaction is especially useful for those with visual impairments.
- A more human touch: conversations are an essential building block for developing rapport. Virtual assistants can deliver a conversational experience that includes tone of voice – a main ingredient in building effective communication and emotional connection.
- Enjoyment: People – particularly younger people – genuinely enjoy speaking to home assistants, showing the bond that can be created through voice.
- Comprehension difficulties: virtual assistants are improving every day, but they can struggle to understand your questions when there is background noise, or it’s a complicated query, or you have an unusual accent.
- Ethical and privacy concerns: having ‘always listening’ virtual assistants embedded into your surroundings raises a number of important questions about privacy and the ethical applications of AI.
- Conversational skills: true human-level conversational abilities are still some way off for virtual assistants, and they’ll never be able to use facial expressions to improve natural, human communication.
- Brand embodiment: there’s a reason Siri’s voice has changed a few times – people don’t really notice. It’s harder to embody your brand with a voice and find that competitive edge that no other company can copy.
Using virtual assistants in business
If you’re unsure about using a voice assistant in your normal life, you might be more taken by how they work in business. Overall, 38% of the workforce currently use a voice assistant in their daily working lives (compared to that 27% of consumers we mentioned earlier).
How do businesses use voice assistants? Salesforce’s study had answers to that too:
- 92% of users rely on a virtual assistant to search for information
- 75% use them to set reminders
- 73% send text messages through them
- 69% book a calendar event (like a meeting or appointment)
- 61% take memos through their voice-enabled friends
- 61% send emails through them
- 57% buy products or services in their work days.
So, from a business and consumer perspective, voice assistants are already quite ingrained in our daily lives – despite being relatively new technologies. They’re proving to be great productivity tools in business, or at least a way to keep the kids entertained in the home.
Voice, it seems, is powerful – both in a functional sense and as a way to engage with people with a meaningful experience. But there’s another level beyond brands only embodying the spoken word, and embodying the person who’s speaking them, too.
Could ChatGPT fill the same role?
It's worth noting here that other technologies are filling this role more readily among businesses today, in 2023. ChatGPT, for example – or, more accurately, Open AI's wider large language model. GPT-3, chat GPT and the Davinci API are all purpose-built for brands to use to provide conversational assistance.
They are, for the most part, seperate to the voice assistants we've just discussed in that they don't verbally speak to users; but that won't always be the case. For instance, we've used OpenAI's generative AI language models to power the conversational abilities of our digital human, Sophie.
With Microsoft and Google also investing heavily in these incredible feats of artificial intelligence, we'll surely see before too long how pervasive generative AI might be on the virtual assistants we know and use today.
Beyond voice assistants: embodying a brand
“It’s nice to put a face to the voice.”
We commonly say this when we’ve spoken to someone on the phone before, but we’re meeting them in person for the first time. It’s perhaps a cliched expression, yet it also gets to the heart of why virtual assistants have their limits as brand ambassadors.
Actual words are responsible for only 7% of the emotional connection nurtured through communication; the tone we use when we say those words convey an additional 38%. But body language and facial expressions make up a huge 55%, which is why trust and affinity can often be better built in face-to-face meetings than through the phone or email.
Virtual assistants are great for providing 24/7 service and organising calendars, but they fall short by only having voice and (sometimes) text tools. To take the next step in human-to-machine interactions, brands need to embrace AI that can put a face to the voice.
This is where digital humans can help. They can listen to us, sure, but they also have lifelike human faces, integrated voice technologies and can use tone and body language far more effectively than virtual assistants and chatbots. In some cases, digital humans can also detect your facial expressions and tone, adjusting their responses accordingly as a means to show empathy.
It’s these features that help develop better emotional connections and build trust when talking with AI. Ultimately, digital humans take all the pieces of the communication puzzle and put them together to form a more cohesive customer experience.
There’s a reason the best ads are steeped in personality and use human (or humanlike) emotion to form a connection with the viewer. For big brands, advertisements like these have been million-dollar investments to fill the top of the marketing funnel. But today, in 2023, any brand can take that type of personality-led connection and build it into the entire marketing journey.
Virtual assistants vs digital humans
How many of your close friends would still be close friends if you only ever spoke on the telephone? Voice has its advantages, undoubtedly, but also its limitations in how strong the communication can be and how much connection you can build through it.
No, close friends choose to meet, connect and hold deeper conversations. Perhaps that’s why so much interaction with a voice assistant is at the functional, surface level.
A recent Adobe Analytics study revealed the most common tasks that people use virtual assistants for is playing music (70%), checking the weather forecast (64%) and asking ‘fun’ questions (53%).
Convenient and entertaining, yes. The peak of what we can achieve? We don’t think so.
A digital human, meanwhile, is a type of virtual assistant that represents more of what people (customers, staff, patients and other end users) have grown to desire more of in 2021 – a more human interaction, not just a disembodied voice or a chatbot transaction.
With virtual assistants still in the early stages of their growth, brands may be looking at ways to own more of the interactions and experiences delivered by the Siris and Alexas of this world. More of these brands are seeing digital humans as that next step.
The future of CX with virtual assistants
The future of customer experience innovation is about creating truly enriching human-to-machine dialogues that go beyond stilted command/respond interactions and give realistic, compelling conversations with AI.
Digital humans already give us great insight into what that future looks like.
When you combine the convenience of voice with the emotional connection of face-to-face chat, you have the type of human communication we’ve used for millennia.
When you make that digital? When you add the scalability to deliver it exponentially? And you add a brand embodiment that competitors simply can’t replicate? Well, we think you have something really UneeQ.
How to build your own virtual assistant?
If your business has invested in developing its own chatbot, it couldn’t be easier to upgrade this into a digital human experience. We see this as a crucial step in creating a digital workforce – a stack of automated digital technologies AND human resources that put customer experience.
There are a wide range of customer problems that are solved by upgrading your chatbot and building your own virtual assistant for your business and brand. In fact, we outline many of them in our latest eBook, Building a digital workforce, which you can read via the link below, for free.
If you’ve yet to get started on such a journey, it’s not too late; although the research in the article above points to an accelerating market in which you might want to get started sooner rather than later. We’re here to help. Our what are digital humans eBook is a great place to start when considering the first steps of embodying your brand with your very own virtual assistant.