When director Spike Jones released his much acclaimed film HER in 2013 about a man in love with his artificially intelligent talking operating system, it was thought to be set in timeless future. Well, that future is very much present now with an army of artificial intelligence (AI) driven personal assistants out there in the market. With the virtual assistants market expected to exceed the USD 3 billion mark by 2020, everyone from Apple, Facebook, Google, Amazon, to Microsoft want a pie of the same through AI assistants of their own.
Apple’s Siri launched in 2011 is the oldest of all and still leads the pack in terms of performance. Tailing close are Amazon’s Alexa, Microsoft’s Cortana, and Google Now by Google while Facebook claims to be only scratching the surface with its M assistant that is reportedly part AI and part human. All these artificially intelligent assistants can talk to you, read your mind, perform tasks such as email management, booking and reservations, etc. and pretty much run your life almost like a human assistant would do. The key word here is almost. The fact that all these AI assistants are designed to ape their human counterparts is enough to set the superiority stakes right. At least, for the time being.
The smart bots have arrived. And the stage is set for battle. Between AI personal assistants and human virtual assistants.
Lets’ take a closer look at what differentiates the two and why AI assistants are not yet the right match when it comes to replacing humans.
#1 The ‘talking to technology’ barrier: In a study by Creative Strategies, it was revealed that while 98% of surveyed iPhone users in the US had interacted with Siri – iPhone’s AI voice assistant, only 3% were willing to do so in public, as they felt uneasy talking to their devices in full view. Numbers of Siri, Cortana, and Alexa put together come to about 20% of US consumers reportedly feeling uncomfortable with public use of voice assistants. Though the study surveyed only US customers, the trend is likely to be similar across Europe and Asia where culturally it is considered rude to talk loudly in open while fellow public falls privy to your conversation. Human virtual assistants have an upper hand here as talking to fellow humans comes naturally to everybody.
#2 Value of employee collaboration: In the modern workplace environment, collaboration is the cornerstone of innovation. According to a McKinsey report, improving collaboration and communication could account for a 20-25% jump in the productivity of workers. This untapped productivity payoff has the potential to contribute billions in business value across industries. And collaboration is nowhere close to being an AI assistant’s strong suite, even in the near foreseeable future. Why? Because every workplace member would have to be on the same operating system platform (Android, iOS, or Windows) and using the same AI application, if these virtual assistants are to attempt even the simplest of tasks such as coordinating and scheduling team meetings, outings, or other team building activities. In contrast, human virtual assistants especially from good companies such as Habiliss, excel at coordination. They are often able to drive workplace collaboration initiatives by making arrangements for the same despite not being physically present on the scene.
#3 Algorithms can go kaput: Facebook recently replaced human editors on its ‘trending topics’ team and implemented a set of algorithms to choose headlines and brief descriptions of trending news items. What followed in just three days was nothing short of a major goof-up. Facebook’s algorithm chose not just a false but a very bad headline alongside Megyn Kelly’s name that was trending. It labelled the famous Fox News personality as a ‘traitor’ and went on to say that news channel had sacked her for politically backing Hillary Clinton. Totally incorrect and obviously in bad taste. Previously, the social media giant employed a team of human editors that approved every news item and its description after it was selected by the automated algorithm. Clearly goes on to establish that there’s a long way to go before humans can be upturned by technological advances, at least where thinking is of supreme importance.
#4 AI assistants make 2X language processing errors compared to humans: Despite Google’s claims of cutting transcription errors by half in its AI assistant in recent times, providing accurate transcriptions of human conversation, especially long blocks of it, remains beyond the abilities of even today’s most advanced software. Natural Language Processing (NLP) – the term that refers to processing human language into a computer friendly format for digital assistants to interpret, has been a hot topic for discussion in tech circles in recent years. Xuedong Huang, a senior Microsoft employee working in the voice recognition domain says “If you have people transcribe conversational speech over the telephone, the error rate is around 4%, compared to all the best of the artificial systems from Google, Microsoft, etc. put together that generate an 8% error rate. The commercially available systems have an even higher error rate – around 12%.” When AI assistants process complex voice instructions, the result is likely to be either a confusing response or a downright hilarious one.
#5 Humans can naturally ‘connect the dots’ while AI has a hard time getting the context: Human intelligence is wired such that it understands the context behind every action and can use the same to base decisions upon it. AI assistants on the other hand are still stuck in the age of Q&As. Teaching machines to understand context in human behavior is a mammoth task and today’s software is nowhere close to getting it right. Human assistants’ abilities to contextualize problems, find solutions, and implement the same make them an extension of your being – something that is essential when you want to outsource important aspects of your life and would like your assistant to be in control of the same without merely taking instructions.
#6 Soft skills: Humans yearn for appreciation, motivation, encouragement, and often need a bit of cheering up when having a bad day. They can get all this and more only from a fellow human personal assistant as opposed to an AI agent. The latter are not yet smart enough to say something like “Hey, I know you tried your best for that sales deal but dude, there’s always a second time!”If you manage to strike a good working relationship with your human assistant, chatting with him/her after a tired day can count a great deal in rejuvenating your energies.
Are Humans Pretending to be Robots?
The revelation that behind the artificial intelligence personal assistants and concierges, there are actual people who spend hours going through every e-mail, ordering groceries, or making travel bookings is shocking to say the least. Apparently, a host of AI assistants that have sprung up in the past such as Amy by X.ai, M by Facebook, Clara, Mezi, etc. are powered by humans hiding behind the AI blanket and delivering perfect responses that are never off the mark. It sure looks like magic but now you know why.