• Virtual personal assistants are getting smarter and more popular. 
  • A Chinese company offers software-based assistants that can do things like interact with customers. 
  • Experts say AI-based personal assistants are making their way into the workplace.

woman working from home using her laptop and smartphone

Thanks to a new wave of virtual personal assistants, help for your busy life may be on the way. 

A Chinese tech company reports the number of virtual people projects has doubled since last year. Baidu claims its virtual employees can handle a variety of tasks, with a growing number of virtual personal assistants capable of helping you do everything from navigating shopping sites to scheduling appointments. 

“The advantages of automation come down to delivering more time back to people, improving cost, and reducing complexity,” David Shrier, a managing member of the venture studio Visionary Future and the author of several books on emerging technologies, told Lifewire in an email interview. “As virtual assistants get better and better, they can take on routine tasks that people find annoying or time-consuming, like booking a holiday with multiple people and travel connections, organizing tickets for a show, or even dealing with a restaurant reservation.”

Artificial Helpers

Geoff Webb, vice president of Solution Strategy at the technology firm isolved, said in an email interview with Lifewire that virtual assistants fall into two main categories: those that help us manage the world and those that help us understand and navigate complex tasks. For most users, the assistants built into smartphones and other similar devices can be helpful when seeking answers to questions or performing basic tasks like setting the alarm or playing their favorite song. 

"However, for complex tasks, specialized virtual assistants are becoming more common [as they're] trained to operate within a narrow set of tasks and provide deeper explanations or more complex task assistance," he added. "Virtual assistants that are designed with specific domains of tasks can quickly step in when users are faced with a daunting or complex task and guide them through it, a process that helps simplify an increasingly complex world and enable users to focus on other tasks. This is [especially useful] in a setting like a workplace where such assistants are becoming more and more common."

The advantages of automation come down to delivering more time back to people…

Shrier said the next wave of personal assistants may take on more complicated tasks and do a better job of bridging the digital world to the physical world. For example, they can connect with restaurants that aren't linked to digital applications like OpenTable or Resy. 

"The computer can call the restaurant and interact with a human being on the other end of the phone," he added. "They can even handle your social media posts for you."

Even the United States Post Office is getting into software assistants. The postal service recently launched the USPTO Virtual Assistant to answer common customer questions. 

“The USPTO is rethinking all of our offerings to create a better user experience and greater access for all,” postal service director Kathi Vidal said in the news release. “This work is critical not only for our stakeholders but also to ensure those less familiar with IP protection can readily protect their brands and ideas.”

The Future of Assistants 

The future of virtual personal assistants looks bright, with Webb saying you should expect to see more specialized assistants in workplace environments.

"As the complexity and pace of the workday accelerate, AI-based assistants can be used more effectively to reduce workload and simplify processes," he added. "Furthermore, the virtual assistant is learning from what works and improving the process, essentially capturing or developing best practices even where none existed before."

Man sending audio message on smartphone from apartment's balcony

The software behind virtual assistants is also getting smarter. According to Webb, you should expect to see virtual assistants understand more and more of the context of the interactions that take place. 

"So the assistant learns about you, the individual, and tailors its interactions to suit your style, your vocabulary, and your needs," he added. "This is especially helpful when they are used to seek out information for you by learning what is important to you and collating data in advance."

Virtual assistants will also soon get less passive. Rather than simply waiting for a request, a virtual assistant can learn what is needed and start to initiate interaction by offering up suggestions, help, and even training where required, Webb said. 

"In short," Webb added. "Assistants will become less and less purely an assistant, and more and more a partner in workplace productivity and efficiency."

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