Personal digital assistant software can help you schedule your day and find directions to your next appointment. But how useful are such mobile digital virtual assistants really, and could they make a busy financial advisor’s job easier?
Siri, the virtual assistant that Apple Inc. introduced in 2011, was supposed to revolutionize the way people dealt with their mobile devices. Siri is a computerized software assistant that understands the spoken word and does its best to carry out your instructions. But Siri has its limitations.
Speech recognition can be a problem. In one of Apple’s glitzy videos promoting Siri, Samuel L. Jackson may have said, “Remind me in an hour to put the gazpacho on ice,” but we suspect that took a few takes. Siri is just as likely to try to remind him to “send a dispatcher out.” That’s because these speech-recognition systems aren’t always good at interpreting varied accents or phrasing.
In spite of these niggles, there’s no denying that virtual assistants can be useful. I recently asked Siri to find the closest cinema, and then to tell me what was playing there and when. I also asked Siri to send a text message to my fiancée, Stacey, to ask her out for a drink after work. When Stacey agreed to meet me, I had Siri cancel an existing appointment and put it in my calendar instead. I did this all with a combination of the touch of a button and voice interaction.
Siri is not the only virtual assistant available. There are others, both for Apple devices and for smartphones and tablets running Google Inc.’s Android operating system. Regardless of the provider, what virtual assistants do is aggregate publicly available information into an easily digestible form.
Most virtual assistants offer such features. For example, Maluuba, available for Android, knows enough to show you a list of local noodle bars when you tell it that you want Japanese food. And asking a question such as “How can I get to the Water Street Café?” automatically opens Google Maps and plots a route.
Most of these functions rely heavily on existing web-based information. However, virtual assistants also fall down regarding basic queries; I couldn’t get any of them to tell me IBM Corp.’s revenue last year, for example, although Siri valiantly threw a stock chart back at me.
Indigo, a personal digital assistant service available on Android, Windows Phone 8 and as a web app, is unique in that it offers persistence across conversations at least. You must sign up for an account so that the software can remember what you have asked, and Indigo will tailor its answers based on previous questions in a conversation. And you can pick up the thread of a conversation on one device even if you started the conversation on another.
Where these apps really shine are in short, easy interactions with other software, such as calendars, text messaging, social networks, and email. Maluuba, like Siri, will automatically put something in your calendar when you tell it to “Book a hair appointment at 5 p.m. on Friday,” displaying the entry first for you to confirm.
This sounds smart, but it isn’t. Neither Maluuba nor Sherpa (another virtual assistant available for Android) were clever enough to realize I already had an appointment booked. They both double-booked appointments in my calendar without alerting me. Indigo nailed it, however, warning me before it made the second booking.
One capability that some virtual assistants have is the ability to interrupt you. This may sound like a bug rather than a feature, but it can be useful. One of the most capable programs in this category is Google Now, which is integrated into recent versions of Android and also downloadable as part of the Google Search app on both Android and iOS devices. This service features “cards,” which are snippets of information tailored to be relevant to your location and activities. These can show you everything from public transit options to weather to movies playing locally.
Google Now will pop up on your device to remind you that you should leave for a meeting by a certain time. This app also will understand how long you will take to reach the meeting location, based on details in your calendar and current traffic conditions, and adjust its reminder accordingly.
There’s no doubt virtual assistant apps are becoming more capable. Indigo was perhaps the most impressive of the ones I tried, and you may find it useful for basic day-to-day activities. But where all of these assistants fall down is their lack of complex task scheduling.
None of the software tested would automatically book me a table for a certain time at a certain restaurant; yet, this should be possible. Online services such as OpenTable enable accountholders to reserve tables for free online without manually interacting or making a phone call.
What’s needed are virtual assistants that can connect to such services and carry out tasks on their own. It should be possible to book a taxi automatically via an online service based on your location rather than presenting you with a list of local taxi firms scraped from Google. Similarly, when I ask my smartphone to find me a French restaurant in Vancouver with good parking nearby, I expect more than a list of parking lots.
There are some things that only a human assistant can do properly; and for a truly capable solution, an online virtual assistant service might be your best bet.
These services, provided by both agencies and individuals, generally charge by the hour and carry out sophisticated tasks and research based on online interaction. Interacting with them can be as simple as opening your smartphone’s email app, then using speech recognition to dictate instructions. This method may cost a little more, but it gives you far more power.
In the future, a virtual assistant may be able to do everything. For now, a combination of silicon and outsourced grey matter is the best way to get the job done.
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