Recently, we have seen artificial intelligence triumph over humans in Jeopardy and chess. And there is a growing presence of virtual assistants like Alexa, Cortana, and Siri that populate our computers, phones, and homes. It’s only a matter of time before A.I.-powered assistants play a significant role in the workplace, experts say.
In fact, the global intelligent virtual assistant market is forecast to be worth $5.1 billion by 2022, up from – $600 million in 2014, according to Transparency Market Research. What are the potential benefits and challenges of giving smart virtual assistants a home in the enterprise? Just Ask The relationship between machines and people is becoming increasingly collaborative as machines gain the capabilities to perform more tasks and routine activities currently done by people. Consumers can ask Alexa, Amazon’s voice-activated app, for the weather forecast, sports scores, or even to turn down the lights (if it’s connected to a wireless lighting system).
“We’re at a stage that I’d describe as ‘front-end speech engagement,'” says Steven Thurlow, VP and global practice leader at Verint Systems, an analytics company that includes customer service solutions. “Machines now have the ability to recognize a natural language question and provide an answer from a knowledge base.” Even without speech recognition, virtual assistants can provide personalized services for customers by accessing reams of data. For instance, Hodges-Mace, an employee benefits technology provider, offers an interactive virtual assistant that accesses employee-specific data and eligibility rules to guide an employee through a benefit decision process. The virtual assistant can also personalize its messaging based on an employer’s strategy.
“With the workforce becoming more diverse and remote, we are seeing employers ask for help in non-traditional communication channels and best practices in maximizing their touchpoints with employees,” notes Kevin Andrews, CTO for Hodges-Mace. “How employers deploy these messages may vary, but one thing is apparent, we are being asked to leverage big data to formulate and deliver more direct messaging versus broad general communication campaigns.”
Next Up: A Virtual Assistant Network Beyond answering questions in a linear process, the next step for artificial intelligence is to access a wide network of resources to provide cognitive support. For instance, In the film Her,Joaquin Phoenix plays a character named Theodore Wombly who purchases an A.I.-powered operating system called Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). Wombly’s perception of Samantha changes from secretary to advisor to girlfriend and he is startled when he eventually realizes that Samantha is part of an expansive network of A.I. systems that all provide similar personalized interactions. While it seems unlikely that people will fall in love with a virtual assistant (at least in the near future), it’s not difficult to imagine companies building a network of A.I. systems that communicate with one another. In fact, companies are already moving in this direction. Last week, IBM and Cisco said they will work together to build apps that integrate Watson (IBM’s cognitive system) and other IBM services with Cisco apps, such as the collaboration platform Spark and conferencing service WebEx. The new solutions will incorporate structured and unstructured data from on-premise sources and the cloud, explained IBM in a statement. The goal is to build applications that can analyze workflow patterns and provide insights through the course of daily activities and interactions. For example, a financial advisor might meet with an investor over Cisco video and a Watson service will surface real-time data and insights related to their meeting while both users store files in IBM Connections and share them through Cisco’s WebEx.