Smart personal assistant apps have been here for a while, but are still limited to early adopters. What will happen when these enter the mainstream?

According to Gartner’s Top 10 Strategic Technology Trends for 2017, smart apps, such as intelligent personal digital assistants (think Cortana, Siri, Alexa and Google Now), are poised to change the way we work and live. Utilizing artificial intelligence, apps that can process human speech and respond appropriately are sure to be important elements in the burgeoning Internet of Things, and will be increasingly integrated across our computers, phones and wearables. In this article, we look at the state of the technology today and where it’s headed in the future.

Evolution of smart apps

The idea of a computerized interactive “assistant” that can respond to your questions and requests pre-dates the modern apps mentioned above. Microsoft made several early attempts to incorporate such functionality (albeit limited) into their operating systems and productivity applications in the form of Clippy (the animated Microsoft Office “helper”) and Microsoft Bob, the ill-fated OS that offered digital “guides” to help navigate its features and functions.

Despite a lack of success, the company never gave up on the concept. I remember sitting in an auditorium in Redmond in the early 2000s and hearing Steve Ballmer describe his dream of being able to tell his computer to make his travel reservations or find a good restaurant for dinner. Today, that dream is reality. Although not everyone has fully embraced them, programs that do those things and more are built into our Windows 10 PCs and our Windows, Android and Apple smartphones. Those who leverage them to their full potential are finding that these smart apps can save us time and trouble and make us more efficient and productive.

Today’s assistants are far smarter than their predecessors and use sophisticated technologies, such as natural language processing and machine learning, to attain predictive intelligence and personalized interaction. In most cases, you can talk to them in your normal speaking voice, or type in your queries if circumstances aren’t conducive to conversation. Responses can be returned to you via speech or text (or displayed images), as well.

Once upon a time, the benefits of having a (human) personal assistant to take care of mundane tasks for you and dig up information you needed was a luxury afforded only to the very wealthy or those in high powered jobs or high level government positions. Now the average person has access to a virtualized assistant who might not be capable of some job duties, such as sewing up a rip in your jacket before that important dinner meeting with the new client, but can probably find you nearby tailors more quickly than a real person could, and is indisputably faster at analyzing all the reviewers of the various clothing repair shops and determining which is likely to do a better job, which is least expensive, and which is still open after business hours.

Leveraging the power of the cloud

Modern digital assistants have a big advantage over the first incarnations in that they don’t have to rely on information stored locally, but can leverage the full power of the vast resources located in the cloud. Combined with the widespread availability of high speed data connections, this enables real-time, comprehensive responses to users’ commands and questions.

Digital assistants provide a user-friendly interface for accessing cloud resources, especially for workers and consumers who are not technically savvy. Instead of having to deal with a conglomeration of separate apps to access different types of data, it’s far easier to just ask a digital assistant for what you need.

Currently, a smart phone user who’s embarking on a trip would typically open an airline app to check flight status, a navigation app to provide turn-by-turn directions to the airport, a car finder app to record where he parked, then at the destination an Uber or Lyft app to arrange a ride to the hotel, a banking app to check that his balance is enough to cover the expenses, and so forth. With a digital assistant, he can do it all from one interface, using voice or text according to his personal preferences and circumstances.

The digital assistants of the future will be able to act as a liaison between devices and apps that normally don’t interact with one another, and save you from the chaos and confusion created by the need to jump between a plethora of open apps, screens and menus. That can’t help but save users both time and frustration – thus making them more productive.

Getting to know you

A good digital assistant, like a good human one, keeps track of your schedule, knows your interests and keeps you updated on what’s going on in those areas, and anticipates your needs. Your digital assistant can not only find the best flight and hotel but also advise you when that flight is delayed, remind you to let the hotel know ahead of time that you’ll be arriving late, and advise you on the best way to get from airport to hotel to conference center.

With artificial intelligence and machine learning, digital assistants can analyze what you’ve done before to predict what you’ll do in the future, and be ready with the information you’ll need. The software can learn your preferences to make its responses to your queries more relevant; if you frequent vegan restaurants on a regular basis and never dine at steak houses, it won’t bother to suggest Big Bob’s Best Beef Barn when you ask it to find you a place to eat.

As digital assistants have evolved, not only do they get to know all about you, they also want you to get to know them. That is, the software presents a “personality” so that humans will be more comfortable interacting with it. You can see this in the different ways the writers have developed the characters of Siri, Alexa, and Cortana – to the extent that we think of them almost as electronic persons. It’s probably no coincidence that all of these major software companies use female voices for their assistants, since women are traditionally thought of as more approachable and more helpful than men.

Assisting those who need it most

While many users may be more comfortable interfacing with their devices in the traditional ways – with a keyboard and mouse – these voice-based digital assistants can be particularly helpful for those who are unable to type or use a pointing device. This includes those who are vision-impaired, who have arthritis or injured hands, or who simply never learned typing skills. Being able to simply talk to the computer in natural language helps to even the playing field and let them focus on getting the information they need, rather than the laborious task of letting the software know what the question is.

The purpose of digital assistants and other smart apps is to make all our lives easier, but that effect is multiplied many times for disabled users. Querying the assistant might return results only marginally faster for a quick typist, but for a blind user who must rely on screen reader software (that doesn’t always work with all web sites), the improvement can be vast.

A digital assistant that’s integrated with office productivity software that supports voice recognition dictation makes it possible for an impaired individual to much more easily use email, create documents and function more effectively in the work environment.

The future seems bright

Digital assistants are only one example of the new phenomenon of smart apps that utilize machine learning algorithms, artificial intelligence, advanced analytics and other sophisticated technologies to change the way we use our devices, the way we work, and the way we live our lives. We are only now entering this exciting new era in application development, and we can expect to see much more amazing things from our digital assistants and other smart apps in the future, as the ever-growing Internet of Things brings them to us in form factors we can’t yet imagine.