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Digital, Virtual, Personal, Brand Assistants: How do they fit together?

By Ed Smith, Chief Product Officer at Humley

We’ve had digital assistants for some time; computer systems that take natural(ish) language commands and perform a useful task for the user. But with the advent of Artificial Intelligence (AI), we see two major shifts; natural language interpretation combined with machine learning. So, what does this mean for the landscape of digital assistants?

Before we look digital assistants more closely; let’s make a distinction between Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) and Narrow AI.

AGI is the stuff of science fiction, academic goals and (unfortunately) the general public perception of what AI can do. It is the idea that we can have an AI that can learn like a child learns, by observation rather than instruction and, over time build up a human-like ability to understand and interact with the broader world around it. We are not there yet, and this vision has a few years to go before becoming a reality.

Narrow AI is where we can instruct a system how to learn. To improve it’s ability in a narrow scope. It is AI, but the expectations are lower as we expect ‘new’ domain knowledge to be added through instruction rather than observational learning.

So let’s look at the landscape of assistants. There are two main types of AI assistants; Personal Assistants and Brand Assistants. A Personal Assistant is focused on providing a user with as wide array of useful assistance as possible. It may open an app, send a text message or schedule a meeting. Examples of Personal Assistants are Apple’s Siri product, Google’s Google Now, Microsoft’s Cortana and Amazon’s Alexa. These companies are investing heavily to be the users Personal Assistant of choice. It is a subject for another blog, but it is interesting to note that Apple’s and arguably Google’s assistants are so closely tied to the underlying OS of the device they work on, they are not universal, whereas, Cortana and Alexa both attempt to be underlying platform agnostic.

A Brand Assistant is much more narrow and specific in scope. The idea is that a Brand Assistant will be able to help with a particular brand, service or product. It may not tell you the weather, but it can help you transfer funds from one bank account to another, tell you the current interest rates, and assist with other specifics to that brand, service or product. A Brand Assistant can have depth were the Personal Assistant has breadth.

It is unlikely that Siri will ever be integrated with all the banks in the world such that it can understand how to do bank transfers, or pay off your credit card, hence the need for both Brand assistants and Personal assistants. So how do the two work together?

If we see a Brand Assistant as being Narrow AI and the vision for Personal Assistants as being AGI we can make an interesting conclusion. Whereas the AGI technology is not ready, there are already products that are preparing for that time to come with brute force programming of Personal Assistants (Siri, Cortana et al). However, the Narrow AI technology is here and already adding huge value to customers while driving down the cost of customer engagement or support. As we look at Personal Assistants verses Brand Assistants, we can see that the vision of creating a Brand Assistant is not only realistic, but will also provide a strong ROI.

Shortly we will see Personal Assistants launch apps or other programs on request, and allow the Brand Assistant to take over. The Personal Assistant providing broad scope of assistance while the individual brand or service assistants providing the needed depth of capability to make this truly valuable to the consumer.

In many ways there are parallels for the the web: AOL, Yahoo, Altavista and others attempted to be personal web assistants, but the web became truly useful when brands started to build their own websites and own their part of the experience.

The significant investment taking place in San Francisco and Seattle to claim the prize of being your Personal Assistant is huge. The question is will brands, product and services be ready for the shift and have their own Brand Assistants ready?

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