A virtual assistant is a software agent that can perform tasks or services for an individual. Sometimes the term "chatbot" is used to refer to virtual assistants generally or specifically those accessed by online chat (or in some cases online chat programs that are for entertainment and not useful purposes).
As of 2017, the capabilities and usage of virtual assistants are expanding rapidly, with new products entering the market. An online poll in May 2017 found the most widely used in the US were Apple's Siri (34%), Google Assistant (19%), Amazon Alexa (6%), and Microsoft Cortana (4%). Apple and Google have large installed bases of users on smartphones. Microsoft has a large installed base of Windows-based personal computers, smartphones and smart speakers. Alexa has a large install base for smart speakers.
The first tool enabled to perform digital speech recognition was the IBM Shoebox, presented to the general public during the 1962 Seattle World's Fair after its initial market launch in 1961. This early computer, developed almost 20 years before the introduction of the first IBM Personal Computer in 1981, was able to recognize 16 spoken words and the digits 0 to 9. The next milestone in the development of voice recognition technology was achieved in the 1970s at the Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania with substantial support of the United States Department of Defense and its DARPA agency. Their tool "Harpy" mastered about 1000 words, the vocabulary of a three-year-old. About ten years later the same group of scientists developed a system that could analyze not only individual words but entire word sequences enabled by a Hidden Markov Model. Thus, the earliest virtual assistants, which applied speech recognition software were automated attendant and medical digital dictation software. In the 1990s digital speech recognition technology became a feature of the personal computer with Microsoft, IBM, Philips and Lernout & Hauspie fighting for customers. Much later the market launch of the first smartphone IBM Simon in 1994 laid the foundation for smart virtual assistants as we know them today. The first modern digital virtual assistant installed on a smartphone was Siri, which was introduced as a feature of the iPhone 4S on October 4, 2011. Apple Inc. developed Siri following the 2010 acquisition of Siri Inc., a spin-off of SRI International, which is a research institute financed by DARPA and the United States Department of Defense.
Method of interaction
Virtual assistants make work via:
- Text (online chat), especially in an instant messaging app or other app
- Voice, for example with Amazon Alexa on the Amazon Echo device, or Siri on an iPhone
- By taking and/or uploading images, as in the case of Samsung Bixby on the Samsung Galaxy S8
Virtual assistants use natural language processing (NLP) to match user text or voice input to executable commands. Many continually learn using artificial intelligence techniques including machine learning.
To activate a virtual assistant using the voice, a wake word might be used. This is a word or groups of words such as "Alexa" or "OK Google".
Devices and objects where found
Virtual assistants may be integrated into many types of platforms or, like Amazon Alexa, across several of them:
- Into devices like smart speakers such as Amazon Echo, Google Home and Apple HomePod
- In instant messaging apps on both smartphones and via the Web, e.g. Facebook's M (virtual assistant) on both Facebook and Facebook Messenger apps or via the Web
- Built into a mobile operating system (OS), as are Apple's Siri on iOS devices and BlackBerry Assistant on BlackBerry 10 devices, or into a desktop OS such as Cortana on Microsoft Windows OS
- Built into a smartphone independent of the OS, as is Bixby on the Samsung Galaxy S8 and Note 8.
- On other mobile apps such as Google Allo
- Within instant messaging platforms, assistants from specific organizations, such as Aeromexico's Aerobot on Facebook Messenger or Wechat Secretary on WeChat
- Within mobile apps from specific companies and other organizations, such as Dom from Domino's Pizza
- On smartwatches
- In appliances, cars, and Android Wear clothing.
- Previous generations of virtual assistants often worked on websites, such as Alaska Airlines' Ask Jenn, or on interactive voice response (IVR) systems such as American Airlines' IVR by Nuance.
- Orange Djingo
Virtual assistants can provide a wide variety of services, and particularly those from Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant grow by the day. These include:
- Provide information such as weather, facts from e.g. Wikipedia or IMDB, set an alarm, make to-do lists and shopping lists
- Play music from streaming services such as Spotify and Pandora; play radio stations; read audiobooks
- Play videos, TV shows or movies on televisions, streaming from e.g. Netflix
- Conversational commerce, see below
- Complement and/or replace customer service by humans. One report estimated that an automated online assistant produced a 30% decrease in the work-load for a human-provided call centre.
Conversational commerce is e-commerce via various means of messaging, including via voice assistants but also live chat on e-commerce Web sites, live chat on messaging apps such as WeChat, Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp and chatbots on messaging apps or Web sites.
Amazon enables Alexa "Skills" and Google "Actions", essentially apps that run on the assistant platforms.
The platforms that power the most widely used virtual assistants are also used to power other solutions:
- Amazon Lex was opened to developers in April 2017. It involves natural language understanding technology combined with automatic speech recognition and had been introduced in November 2016.
- Google provides the Actions on Google and Dialogflow platforms for developers to create "Actions" for Google Assistant
- Apple provides SiriKit for developers to create extensions for Siri
- IBM's Watson, while sometimes spoken of as a virtual assistant is in fact an entire artificial intelligence platform and community powering some virtual assistants, chatbots. and many other types of solutions.
In previous generations of text chat-based virtual assistants, the assistant was often represented by an avatar of (a.k.a. 'interactive online character or automated character) — this was known as an embodied agent.
Full comparison of assistants
|Intelligent personal assistant||Developer||Free software||Free and open-source hardware||HDMI out||External I/O||IOT||Chromecast integration||Smart phone app||Always on||Unit to unit voice channel|
|Alexa (a.k.a. Echo)||Amazon.com||No||No||No||No||Yes||No||Yes||Yes||?|
|BlackBerry Assistant||BlackBerry Limited||No||N/A||N/A||N/A||No||No||Yes||No||N/A|
|Evi||Amazon.com True Knowledge||No||N/A||N/A||N/A||No||No||Yes||No||N/A|
|M (discontinued January 2018)|
|Lucida||Clarity Lab, University of Michigan
[third-party source needed]
|Saiy(a.k.a. utter!)||Saiy Ltd.||Yes||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A||Yes||Yes||N/A|
|Sherpa||Sherpa Europe SL||No||N/A||N/A||N/A||Yes||No||Yes||Yes||N/A|
Digital experiences enabled by virtual assistants are considered to be among the major recent technological advances and most promising consumer trends. Experts claim that digital experiences will achieve a status-weight comparable to ‘real’ experiences, if not become more sought-after and prized. The trend is verified by a high number of frequent users and the substantial growth of worldwide user numbers of virtual digital assistants. In mid-2017, the number of frequent users of digital virtual assistants is estimated to be around 1bn worldwide. In addition, it can be observed that virtual digital assistant technology is no longer restricted to smartphone applications, but present across many industry sectors (incl. automotive, telecommunications, retail, healthcare and education). In response to the significant R&D expenses of firms across all sectors and an increasing implementation of mobile devices, the market for speech recognition technology is predicted to grow at a CAGR of 34.9% globally over the period of 2016 to 2024 and thereby surpass a global market size of USD 7.5 billion by 2024. According to an Ovum study, the "native digital assistant installed base" is projected to exceed the world's population by 2021, with 7.5 billion active voice AI–capable devices.  According to Ovum, by that time "Google Assistant will dominate the voice AI–capable device market with 23.3% market share, followed by Samsung's Bixby (14.5%), Apple's Siri (13.1%), Amazon's Alexa (3.9%), and Microsoft's Cortana (2.3%)."
Taking into consideration the regional distribution of market leaders, North American companies (e.g. Nuance Communications, IBM, eGain) are expected to dominate the industry over the next years, due to the significant impact of BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) and enterprise mobility business models. Furthermore, the increasing demand for smartphone-assisted platforms are expected to further boost the North American Intelligent Virtual Assistant (IVA) industry growth. Despite its smaller size in comparison to the North American market, the intelligent virtual assistant industry from the Asia-Pacific region, with its main players located in India and China is predicted to grow at an annual growth rate of 40% (above global average) over the 2016-2024 period.
In May 2018, researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, published a paper that showed audio commands undetectable for the human ear could be directly embedded into music or spoken text, thereby manipulating virtual assistants into performing certain actions without the user taking note of it. The researchers made small changes to audio files, which cancelled out the sound patterns that speech recognition systems are meant to detect. These were replaced with sounds that would be interpreted differently by the system and command it to dial phone numbers, open websites or even transfer money. The possibility of this has been known since 2016, and affects devices from Apple, Amazon and Google.
- Applications of artificial intelligence
- Computer facial animation
- Expert system
- Intelligent agent
- Knowledge Navigator
- Natural language processing
- Simulated reality
- Software agent
- Wizard (software)
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