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Brace Yourself for an Explosion of Virtual Assistants

by Anthony J. Bradley  |  August 10, 2020  |  2 Comments

One of my highly talented analysts, Annette Jump, who covers virtual assistant/cognitive agent technologies recently completed an analysis of Natural Language Processing (NLP) patent submissions and investment activity. She just published “Emerging Technologies: Natural Language Processing Patent Growth Insights” and previously published “Venture Capital Growth Insights: Conversational UI” (both available to Gartner clients). One very clear pattern emerged from analyzing patent and venture capital investments. We need to brace ourselves for a potential explosion in virtual assistants.

Pretty much all of us are familiar with consumer virtual personal assistants (VPA) such as Siri, Alexa, Cortana and Google now. But this is a whole new level beyond the basic functions of the virtual personal assistant (think Jarvis from Iron Man vs. Siri from Apple :-).  

I label this virtual assistant expansion as VxA. We can substitute almost any job or task for the x. For example, in the medical industry we are seeing investment and patent activity around cognitive agents like virtual medical billing assistants (VMBA), virtual radiology assistants (VRA), virtual plan of care assistants (VPCA), virtual medical testing assistants (VMTA), etc. The acronyms are virtually unlimited (pun intended). 

Every Job Can Benefit

And the medical field is but one of many targets. VxAs apply to almost all disciplines. E-commerce, storefront operations, customer service, distance learning, virtual selling and remote work collaboration are all strong examples of how existing and new technologies are changing behaviors. And there are a host of others. This provides a rich environment for the advancement of VxA. For example, think of how valuable a virtual teaching assistant would be in today’s educational environment. Imagine a world where every student has a virtual teaching assistant. One that understands the student’s particular learning capabilities and challenges and can tailor a human teacher’s instructions and lessons. 

IMHO, the company that delivers a robust Virtual Shopping Assistant (VSA), at scale, will be the company that challenges Amazon’s empire (unless that company is Amazon itself). “Jarvis, find me the best deal on a movie projector that projects in 1080p, is under $500.00, has 4 stars or more on at least 200 reviews, is smaller than a breadbox and can ship to me within 3 days.” “Ok Anthony, here is a list of products that meet your criteria, shall we buy one of them?” Imagine, no more push advertising and privacy issues as companies compile your personal data to “define who you are as a shopper.” We shift to pull marketing where you tell your virtual shopping assistant exactly what you want and it shops 24 x 7 x 365, without needing a wink of sleep, until the job is done.

Gartner predicts that by 2025, 50% of knowledge workers will use a virtual assistant on a daily basis, up from 2% in 2019.

Not Your Typical Chatbot

Virtual assistants powered by AI cognitive agents and conversational user interface have been around for years now. But, in general, their application and utility has been and still is limited. Many of us have had very poor “chatbot“ Ecommerce experiences. Yes, this is in part due to variability in the capabilities of the technology and the providers. But, it is also due to poor or inadequate implementation. Many organizations were testing and experimenting with chatbots but have not truly committed to them.

We are seeing a significant uptick in advancements. Basic decision tree rules based technologies are being augmented or replaced with deep learning, semantic engines, intelligent process modeling and other blended AI capabilities.  Additionally, some vendors are taking a “voice first” approach to development augmenting their text based analysis with voice recognition. This provides a much richer capability and the potential to address a much broader set of tasks. Technology providers like IPSoft are continuously adding new “skills” to their cognitive agents (Amelia). Other vendors such as IBM, Nuance, Amazon Lex and others also offer virtual agent technologies.

Supply and Demand are Accelerating

In the current environment where the pandemic has accelerated digital business and “remote everything,” we have seen virtual agent demand increase. We will be watching closely to gauge investment and advancement in this space. We believe that COVID-19 pandemic will accelerate VxA progress. Telemedicine, for example, has increased significantly during the pandemic and will most likely continue at a much higher rate than pre-pandemic. This may drive demand for a plethora of medical virtual assistants. This pandemic will end but many of the virtual life and digital business behaviors will endure as people become more comfortable with new technologies. 

Virtual agents have a few other things going for them. They assist human beings versus replacing them so there are the benefits of increased employee productivity without the bad press of eliminating jobs.  Also, the business model for virtual agents is incremental for the technology providers versus other artificial intelligence capabilities like machine learning which are more embedded. It is easier to charge for the incremental capability and harder to charge for an embedded, less apparent capability. This means that virtual agents represent a better revenue stream for technology providers.

Just about every consumer and business software provider should be examining how a virtual assistant can augment their existing business applications. Those who win longer term will either embed AI into the core capabilities of their software or deliver virtual assistants that operate along with it.

After all, we all need a little help sometimes. Full disclosure, Siri helped me, as my virtual transcription assistant, in crafting this blog post. 🙂

What do you think?

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Anthony J. Bradley
13 years at Gartner
30 years in IT

Anthony J. Bradley is a Group Vice President in Gartner Research. In this role he leads global teams of analysts who research the emerging technologies and trends that are changing today's world and shaping the future. Mr. Bradley's group strives to provide technology product and service leaders (Tech CEOs, General Managers, Chief Product Officers, Practice Leads, Product Managers and Product Marketers) with unique, high-value research and indispensable advice on leveraging emerging technologies and trends to create and deliver highly successful products and services. Information technology now impacts pretty much every business function in all companies, all industries, and all geographies. Technology providers are critical to the technology and business innovation that will define the world of tomorrow. Innovation depends on technology providers. By helping them, we help the world.

Thoughts on Brace Yourself for an Explosion of Virtual Assistants

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