What Can Virtual Assistants Really Do?


It seems closer everyday with developments of artificial intelligence (AI) technologies that many jobs will become part of history. For example, in the near future virtual assistants are going to replace real personal assistants. Managers and senior officials normally need personal assistants to organize tasks during their working day. Managers in small companies would also prefer to get support from personal assistants, which is normally not possible due to financial limitations. Traditional human assistant would remind the manager of important appointments, read and filter emails, book tickets and maybe deal with customers along other task. The versatility and complexity of tasks handled by personal assistants seemed impossible to be handled by computers or machines. However, many companies have proved that AI is capable of bringing virtual assistants appearing in science fiction movies into the real world. In Iron Man movie series, Tony Stark relied heavily on his virtual assistant J.A.R.V.I.S for doing his daily tasks, helping with the experiments and even assisting him during the battles. This may be achieved in reality soon. Recent virtual assistants talk to humans and perform a variety of tasks in a manner very similar to what J.A.R.V.I.S was doing.

What are virtual assistants exactly?

Virtual Assistant with AI is a program designed to easily understand user commands through multiple methods. These programs are characterised by their ability to correctly understand and interact with the user through the simplest ways of communication. Input methods could be text such as chatbots replying to messages in messaging apps or voice commands such as Apple Siri, Windows Cortana and Google Assistant. Companies are now competing to make the virtual assistant more intelligent, not just to understand the user but also to give the user the feeling that he is talking to a real human being rather than a machine. This article will review recent developments introduced by Google, which is leading the way to develop reliable virtual assistants. Google started the first form of publicly available virtual assistants long time ago when it started the voice search in 2012. They progressed greatly by producing Google Now which proactively gives suggestions based on repeated actions of the user. In 2014, Google developed more algorithms to offer the user the needed information at the right time such as showing the fastest route when going to work. Google developed this feature by making Google Now On Tap which shows all relevant information about your selection in any app. Recently, Google Maps allows modifying the route to add a stop at a gas station or a restaurant along the way. In 2016, Google Assistant was released which is a virtual assistant with good ability to interact with humans. Google announced in 2017 that the system was installed on more than 400 million devices. Google Assistant can engage into conversations with users and help them with multiple tasks.

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Google Assistant

Google Assistant added a lot to the productivity of the user; it could set timer or alarm, schedule event, perform actions such as calling others, sending messages using any app like WhatsApp, Nextplus and BBM. The actions are done very easily through voice commands such as “Send a WhatsApp message”. It also reads messages for you. It is triggered easily by saying “ok Google” before saying the order. This can be really beneficial for drivers who can safely do everything on the phone through voice commands without unnecessary interruption. You can also make calculations by voice by saying “tan(60)” or “15% of 13” or even “pi times 71 squared”. Google Assistant may also help you memorize certain information. You may say "Remember that I parked my car at someplace" or that "password of WIFI is 1234". At some time later you could ask about the place of your car or the password. Google also tries to make its virtual assistant more familiar with human feelings. You may say “I am angry or sad” and it will find some answer. Sometimes, it may even tell jokes which may help improve your mood. In brief, Google Assistant aims to automate the interaction with smartphones through voice commands but more importantly in a more human-like way. The user can also turn on trusted voice so that "Ok Google" voice command makes the assistant work even if the phone is locked. Google Assistant seamlessly integrates with any app and functionality on the phone. Apparently, it can do anything on your phone with voice command by giving it the appropriate permission. Moreover, the user can easily customize the commands; making his own commands shortcuts rather than those the assistant understands normally. You can even use voice commands to control other equipment such as smart plug, electric kettle and smart bulbs as long as they support this functionality.

Beyond smartphones

Actually, Google Assistant is not anymore limited to android devices or even Google devices. The company currently offers their technology and algorithm and technology to be used in products of other companies. Google has recently announced that the Assistant is currently used by around 1,600 brands and 10,000 different devices. For example, many home control companies such as Voxior, TP-link and Philips Hue integrated Google Assistant to control various electronic appliances at home through voice command. They enabled the control of electronics, appliances, lighting and home security using simple sentences. In 2016, Google started offering its smart speakers which are called Google Home. It is a standalone control unit that enables smart home control. It supports many smart devices from different companies such as Nest, LIFX, and Logitech Harmony. In 2017, Google made updates to the product offering free phone calls to all mobile and landline phones in US and Canada. In October 2018, Google offered Google Home Hub which is a 7-inch smart screen that controls the home through visual interface. It shows visually the status of different devices. These products also support Google Assistant available on smartphones.

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Behaving like humans

The amazing thing about Google Assistant is not only what it can do, but rather how it can interact with humans. Last year, Google Assistant has shown amazing ability to speak with humans. It was able to successfully manage a two-way conversation while adding some disfluencies like “hmm” and “uh”, adding more human taste to the conversation. It also uses a human tone with the appropriate delay in the response and common phrases like “gotcha”. You can't really tell that you're talking to a machine and not a real human being. This Assistant was tested in various situations. One of them was in making a booking at a hair salon. The other was in making a reservation at a restaurant. The Assistant knows how to get sufficient information from the user to achieve its goal successfully. This technology is still under development. It has a limited usage and is available only for Google Pixel users with limited functionality. This human-like assistant available now can only make restaurant reservations, but certainly it will be able to do much more in the near future.