Have we been too hasty to label Virtual Assistants as ‘intelligent’?

By Ellie Lucy on November 28, 2018

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The following blog explores the history and development of VAs to their current standing and popularity, which will no doubt be emphasised through sale numbers on Cyber Monday and Black Friday. With Cyber Monday in mind, we’d like to take this opportunity to extend our own offer to readers of our blog - 25% off all summit tickets when using the code CYBER25!

The term virtual assistant (VA) isn’t one which is widely used in popular society, but rather brands, including Google, Amazon and Apple services who are leading the way in VA development and dominating the current market.

But what is a virtual assistant? VA’s are recognised as software agents which can perform tasks or services for an individual, which, of late, has a heavy emphasis on voice user interfaces due to the advances in Natural Language Processing (NLP), cloud services and speech-to-text capabilities. Due to advancements in Artificial Intelligence, the average off-the-shelf device which you can now purchase for under £100 has a speech recognition and accuracy rate which surpasses 95%.

Contrary to popular opinion, speech recognition tools are not a contemporary development but instead date back to 1961 with the development of the ‘Shoebox’ from IBM, which harnessed the capability to recognise 16 words and digits. Slow development followed over the next ten years until regular RE•WORK summit attendees, Carnegie Mellon University, completed the Harpy programme, which developed the capacity to recognise over 1000 words. It would be another 40 years before Microsoft introduced the general public to speech recognition as a feature in Microsoft XP which was still widely misunderstood at the time. Wide-scale public attention would surround Virtual Assistants in 2011 with the launch of Apple’s Siri, arguably the first widely used and understood VA which came pre-installed on the iPhone 4s.

It’s taken decades for scientists to understand natural human speech to the point where voice-activated interfaces such as Alexa, the natural language processing system by Amazon, are sufficiently enabled to be successfully accepted by consumers.

This development would introduce the once unthinkable capability of sending texts and emails, searching the internet and setting reminders, all whilst hands-free! Siri, of course, needed time to adjust to certain accents and languages which was developed in time through the use of Artificial Intelligence.

Fast forward seven years and Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s range of VA devices are leading the market, but what’s next? Whilst we are able to do our weekly shop, order our favourite takeaway and play our favourite music by talking to a rather inconspicuous device in the corner of our lounges, many researchers have suggested that there is a lot of work still to do and that deeming these machines as ‘intelligent’ is still farfetched.

It turns out that while tens of millions of people are buying Amazon Alexa-enabled smart home devices like the Echo, only a small fraction of those people are using them to make purchases

Whilst still in its infancy, Virtual Assistants are now in over thirty million homes, with a projected 30 million units to also be sold in 2018 alone. The sales figures of VAs will no doubt correlate with the advancement of intelligent capabilities, app and software integration as well as a decreased price point.

Sales of Virtual assistants seem to fluctuate, especially in the festive season and surrounding both Black Friday and Cyber Monday. It was suggested that on Cyber Monday alone last year over 6.5 billion dollars worth of sales were recorded and with increased projections this year, it could be a great year for artificially intelligent devices. With the large-scale advancements made in 7 short years since the first widespread VA in Siri, it is not incomprehensible to think that a Virtual Assistant will be a staple of the home in years to come.

RE•WORK will be supporting Cyber Monday this year. Whilst we will not be selling Virtual assistants, we can go one better! We are offering 25% off of all summit tickets in 2019! Why’s this one better you ask? Well, if you are interested in the research, future and developments of Virtual assistants, Artificial Intelligence and other futuristic trends, RE•WORK can help you access some of the greatest minds, pioneers and technologists at the forefront of the industry, who are directly working on, or aiding in the development of some of the technology you use every day! In January alone, RE•WORK will have presentations from Chandra Khatri, Lead AI Scientist at Alexa AI amongst others presentations from leading minds at Google Brain, Facebook Conversational AI, Samsung Research America and more!

We have also been fortunate enough to have regular speakers from Google, Samsung, Amazon, Facebook and a number of fellow tech leading companies over the years, who have been figureheads in development, making both tangible and intangible advancements in the world of AI and Virtual Assistants. A large majority of these talks can be found on our Video Hub, which contains countless hours of invaluable Information all available online!

To have the opportunity to see these technical presentations and rub shoulders with those directly aiding in the advancement of influential technology and the devices mentioned above, use code CYBER25 for 25% off ALL 2019 summits, commencing on Cyber Monday 2018 (Monday, 26 November) and lasting for a week. Don’t miss out!

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Virtual Assistant Summit Chatbots NLP Speech Recognition


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