A virtual assistant, also called AI assistant or digital assistant, is an application program that understands natural language voice commands and completes tasks for the user.
Such tasks, historically performed by a personal assistant or secretary, include taking dictation, reading text or email messages aloud, looking up phone numbers, scheduling, placing phone calls and reminding the end user about appointments. Popular virtual assistants currently include Amazon Alexa, Apple’s Siri, Google Assistant and Microsoft’s Cortana — the digital assistant built into Windows Phone 8.1 and Windows 10.
Types of virtual assistants
Though this definition focuses on the digital form of virtual assistants, the term virtual assistant, or virtual personal assistant, is also commonly used to describe contract workers who work from home doing administrative tasks typically performed by executive assistants or secretaries.
Virtual assistants can also be contrasted with another type of consumer-facing AI programming, called smart advisers. Smart adviser programs are subject-oriented, while virtual assistants are task-oriented.
Virtual assistant devices and technology
Virtual assistants are typically cloud-based programs that require internet-connected devices and/or applications to work. Three such applications are Siri on Apple devices, Cortana on Microsoft Devices and Google Assistant on Android devices.
There are also devices dedicated to providing virtual assistance. The most popular ones are available from Amazon, Google and Microsoft. To use the Amazon Echo virtual assistant, called Alexa, users call out the wake word, “Alexa.” A light on the device signals to the user it is ready to receive a command, which typically involves simple language requests, such as “what is the weather today,” or “play pop music.” Those requests are processed and stored in Amazon’s cloud.
The technologies that power virtual assistants require massive amounts of data, which feeds artificial intelligence (AI) platforms, including machine learning, natural language processing and speech recognition platforms. As the end user interacts with a virtual assistant, the AI programming uses sophisticated algorithms to learn from data input and become better at predicting the end user’s needs.
Virtual assistant capabilities
Virtual assistants typically perform simple jobs for end users, such as adding tasks to a calendar; providing information that would normally be searched in a web browser; or controlling and checking the status of smart home devices, including lights, cameras and thermostats.
Users also task virtual assistants to make and receive phone calls, create text messages, get directions, hear news and weather reports, find hotels or restaurants, check flight reservations, hear music, or play games.