Virtual Assistants: Towards Greater Sophistication

By October 21, 2014

Clara Labs, a startup which was a member of the summer 2014 batch at leading incubator Y Combinator, is reportedly about to receive substantial backing from venture capital firm Sequoia Capital to help bring its smart personal assistant to market. A timely opportunity for us to take another look at the trend for digital personal assistants.

Using digital and process automation to simplify daily tasks is something that a lot of professional people are very keen on and therefore something that a number of tech startups are keen to provide. In addition to all the available productivity-boosting systems designed to help manage daily tasks more efficiently, there has been a considerable boom in virtual assistant apps lately, both for private and professional purposes. A recent example is a voice assistant project called Viv, run by two of the three engineers who were behind Apple’s personal assistant/knowledge navigator Siri, which claims to have achieved a substantial improvement in semantic performance so as to make the user experience more precise. Meanwhile Coca-Cola is using a custom-built web virtual assistant, in the form of a messaging service which can direct a customer search towards specific assistance. In parallel, startup Clara Labs has come up with a virtual personal assistant designed to save users time by centralising and automating everyday organisational tasks.

Smart assistants save time

The ‘Clara’ personal assistant is able to organise a meeting with a real person all by ‘herself’. For example, if you email a colleague or contact requesting a meeting and put Clara in copy, she can access information on the two parties’ availability, arrange the meeting with the message recipient and enter it in the diary. Clara is also aware of when she needs to take action, spotting incoming emails containing meeting requests, looking at the diary and emailing back a date-and-time suggestion.  Recent moves to make company workspace smarter include the use of iBeacons, which render the space itself interactive and foster fast collaboration. Booking a meeting room for an ad hoc session becomes easier when you can track the whereabouts of all required participants in real time. However, this process cannot yet be automated, as people need to be close to the sensors in order to be identified. So the idea of using artificial intelligence (AI) to create ‘smart’ personal assistants that can understand human language well enough to draft emails or find out where the nearest Italian restaurant is located represents an immediate step forward in improving employee productivity.

Total task delegation down the road? 

In 2010, Siri, a startup working on voice assistance technology, was acquired by Apple, which promptly incorporated this functionality into its smartphones.  Today Siri is able to programme dates in your diary, send emails, read incoming messages and carry out Internet searches.  San Francisco-based startup Jarvis, founded in 2013, is a personal assistant with a more domestic skillset – i.e. monitoring household appliances and heating/cooling systems in a connected home.  Meanwhile Google has an assistant called Google Now and Microsoft has developed its Cortana assistant and this general enthusiasm for personal assistants does not appear to be diminishing.  Quite the reverse in fact: judging by some of the acquisitions made recently, the web giants seem to be gearing up to take the technology to the next level by developing AI to the point where daily tasks can eventually be entirely delegated to virtual assistants. Last year, with the aim of further enhancing Siri, Apple bought Novauris, a company specialising in voice recognition, which already possesses a large vocabulary having worked with Verizon Wireless, Panasonic and Samsung. With the work being done by the Internet giants, notably Google, on machine-learning, AI now looks increasingly likely to become – through personal assistants among other functionality – part of our everyday lives. 

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