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At Your Service: Virtual assistants promise interesting times ahead

March 08, 2018

Artificial intelligence (AI) has a huge potential to transform the daily lives of individuals as well as industry processes with applications ranging from robotics to quantum computing. The telecom industry has been among the early adopters of AI, particularly in the form of virtual assistants. AI aims to simplify routine as well as complex tasks by controlling them through voice, requiring little or no manual labour. Meanwhile, technology giants are also eyeing AI assistants to differentiate their products amidst tough competition. The entry of Chinese manufacturers in the sector has left little room for innovation on the hardware front; therefore, companies are now competing on their software prowess.

AI assistants are getting smarter with yearly iterations. They can be classified into two types – smartphones and home assistants. While smartphone assistants focus mainly on making the device hands-free, home assistants are laying emphasis on home automation and can be integrated with a variety of home automation devices and technologies.

Popular AI assistants

Most of the AI assistants in the market have similar features and capabilities. In terms of baseline functions, all of them can perform web searches and provide additional information like weather and news, and set reminders, etc. Therefore, in terms of basic facilities the experience is similar across the board. The software ecosystem is an important factor while selecting AI assistants. For example, Apple users would find it better to stick to Siri since it runs best on iPhones.

• Google Assistant: Available on both phones and the recently launched Google Home, technology major Google’s AI assistant is perhaps the most popular and widely used. Since Google provides the majority of productivity services, this feature has remarkable integration with other Google apps and works well with most of the third-party apps as compared to other assistants. Further, Google Home is considered as the most superior in terms of voice recognition. The assistant can identify different users and provide user-specific answers. Moreover, users can also place calls from Google Home devices. Another advantage of Google Assistant is that it understands the context very well and can continue a conversation using information from the questions asked earlier.

• Amazon Alexa: E-commerce major Amazon has also entered the fray with the launch of its AI assistant, Alexa. Apart from providing the basic mobile phone AI functions, Alexa is also being used in Amazon Echo, the company’s home assistant series. Alexa is at par with other AI assistants in terms of providing basic functions and doing simple tasks. However, what sets it apart from the rest is that it leverages Amazon’s widespread e-commerce presence. For example, Alexa can add products listed on Ama zon to your shopping cart. Although Alexa cannot go as far as placing orders at present, this feature might be added in the future. Further, it can support a number of home automation devices, much more than what Google Home does. This feature can be a deal breaker for customers interested in the automation aspect of things. Besides, Alexa is easily customisable and a number of skills can be added to it.

• Siri: Siri works well in the Apple ecosystem. However, it is in no way as smooth as Google Assistant and often has difficulties in recognising speech. In addition, it does not have other advantages offered by Alexa. Nevertheless, Apple can be trusted to provide a consistent user experience across all its devices. In fact, Siri’s backward compatibility is better than that of the rest of the pack. Apart from iPhones, Siri is also being used in Apple’s recently launched HomePod.

• Bixby: Samsung also jumped on to the bandwagon and launched its own AI assistant, Bixby, with the launch of the Galaxy S8 and S8+ in March 2017. Bixby provides good control over third-party apps and assists in everyday simple tasks. Samsung has also developed a direct control over its inbuilt apps. However, Bixby is still slow and often struggles to stay apace with its counterparts. It is currently available only on flagship Samsung devices. In order to access its home automation features through the Samsung SmartThings Hub, an additional $50 has to be paid. Samsung has recently announced that it will soon be integrating Bixby into all its smart TVs as well. This would help users access all basic voice assistant functions as well as the SmartThings Hub through the TV.

• Cortana: The biggest thing that goes in favour of Microsoft’s AI assistant Cortana is its compatibility with all mobile platforms. Cortana is available across various operating systems such as Windows, Android and iOS. However, it is lagging behind in terms of third-party app integration and performing advanced tasks.

Challenges and the way forward

Although AI assistants have improved over the past couple of years, the surface has barely been scratched in terms of their true potential. Many of the assistants still face difficulties in terms of voice recognition and differentiation, which is a prerequisite for any AI assistant to perform seamlessly. Moreover, with increasing digitisation, issues like data privacy and cybersecurity are becoming more challenging than ever. Many users may not want their data to be monitored or accessed. Currently, AI assistants have a limited understanding of context and find it challenging to understand a simple conversation.

The challenges notwithstanding, AI has great potential to transform the daily activities of individuals in a big and positive way. In addition, with the growing focus of major technology companies, significant growth and refinement can be expected in this space in the near future. The possibilities are endless as far as synergies between AI, machine-to-machine and IoT are concerned. Overall, it will be interesting to see how AI assistants evolve from their limited application today to take up diverse roles across industries in the times to come.

 
 

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