In-depth

Do digital assistants need to be more conversational?

AI is exciting, but conversation between man and machine is still stilted and unnatural

Digital assistants such as Amazon's Alexa, Apple's Siri or Google's eponymous offering have never been more popular with consumers, and business use is looking likely to follow suit. With life becoming more hectic and busy, the choice to automate certain tasks or render them hands-free is appealing across the board, in both our personal lives and our lives at work.

This technology is still in its early stages, but it's evolving quickly. As strides forward in artificial intelligence hit the headlines almost daily, it's plausible that these in-home and office devices will adopt a far more conversational and "human" quality.

Nuance, interpretation and engagement

"One of the key differentiators between man and machine has always been that we can understand and interpret emotion, but this will not remain in the human domain," says Shashi Nirale, senior vice president and SBU head at Servion Global Solutions. "While it might seem alien now to be talking about emotionally engaging with a machine, the virtual assistants that we interact with in just a few years will be a far cry from the majority of modern iterations."

Currently, Alexa, Siri and their competitors are limited by their purpose to deliver information and answers to the user without engaging any further. While this rightly feels like an advanced step forwards right now, it's also likely to quickly become quaint as related strides in AI take shape.

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Ed Smith, chief product officer at AI and machine learning firm Humley, says: "Currently Siri, Alexa and other digital assistant technologies function predominantly on a command-line basis. Users must communicate using very specific phrases to reach their desired outcomes. This works well but only for those willing to learn the specific commands and adapt to the technological idiosyncrasies. This will not be enough to cross the chasm for the broad majority of consumers."

"We're definitely going to see digital assistants becoming more conversational language is the best means we have as humans to convey our intent," added Matty Mariansky, co-founder of AI scheduling app Meekan. "No interface is more intuitive for humans than language."

"As the barriers are gradually overcome, we'll see more and more machines not just assistants, but even simple home appliances sharing a common 'house brain', knowing about each other's presence, about the time of day, their physical surroundings, and most important, their owner's habits and wishes," he says.

Businesses are understandably curious to see how they might use this exciting new technology both within their workforce and in their relationship with customer. According to research by Adobe, two thirds of workers would welcome AI assistants into the office.

Nirale said: "This shift in focus towards building emotional bonds between a brand and its customers will change the way businesses interact with us at a fundamental level essentially leading to a new 'emotion economy'. Soon, implementing technologies that are capable of detecting and analysing emotion will not just be a project for tech firms, but an essential for any organisation, as companies compete for the affection of customers."

AI care in the community

One rather obvious use case for more conversational assistants would be in the health and social care, whether it's providing companionship to the elderly and isolated, or helping those with disabilities complete everyday tasks. As Myron Hrycyk, digital transformation director at Sopra Steria, points out, the transition from older technology to this newer way of interacting may actually be easier for those most in need than some other alternatives.

"The familiarity of voice, as long as the customer experience is placed front and centre of the design thinking, will enable this generation to make the relatively straightforward leap from the phone to the digital voice device," he says.

Smith adds: "Consider the case of a dementia patient who can ask their personal assistant if they've taken their pills and is able to ask this same question a hundred times with no frustration from the assistant. Studies have proven that depression sufferers are actually more willing to express their feelings to conversational assistants over a human beings. Artificial intelligence is a transformative technology for this sector, and it's undeniable that conversational ability sits at the heart of patient care transformation."

But this also highlights the difficulties voice assistants may have in achieving conversational abilities that reach our standards, as BT's head of customer insight and futures, Nicola Millard, explains.

"Although an eight-year-old can happily engage in conversation, a machine learning algorithm can struggle. Conversation is a surprisingly complex activity to automate," Millard says. "A recent study from McKinsey estimates that it has a low potential for automation, at just 20%. This is because conversation typically needs not just the ability to process language and context, but also social and emotional cues.

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"Undoubtedly, the ability for machines to process natural language will improve, but they may never be able to develop the conversational skills to help those suffering from loneliness, disability or mental health issues. Indeed, the march of technology may make us re-evaluate the value of human connection on relationships."

One size fits all?

Of course, a tricky area for digital assistants to navigate in the near future is how corporate and personal use is balanced. While one assistant catering to all requirements may be suitable for entrepreneurs, for employees at larger firms it would be much less so. If we want our tech to get to know us and our needs then this issue and related security concerns would need to be resolved to make it happen.

Paul Sweeney, EVP at AI company Webio, says: "There's a God Bot versus Many Bots choice for digital assistants. Do we hand over our bookings, payments and preference handling to Google Assistant or Alexa and 'let them' handle the interactions with all the other services in our lives, such as Deliveroo and MyTaxi? Or do we have many different personal assistants that help us in specific domains?

"If intelligent assistants become mere 'transaction handlers' they won't become services we truly love. When we begin to rely on these services, when they seem to care about our day, our tasks, our lives, then they will become embedded in our daily lives."

Christian Pedersen, chief product officer at SAP ERP Cloud, adds: "It's no longer a small window on your screen responding to your requests, but sending you information without you needing to ask. Looking to the future, the evolution of digital assistants will build on this type of service and tie in closely with the progress made in both machine learning and artificial intelligence technologies."

Digital assistants are undoubtedly going to become more commonplace in the workplace, but what form they take is currently up for debate. Though becoming more conversational feels like a natural step for the technology in line with advances in robotics and AI, whether this is needed for their purpose is another question. While we always want technology to become more like us, it could just as easily be an unnecessary step in the wrong direction.

Main image credit: Bigstock

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