What Comes After Virtual Assistants?

Virtual assistants already seem futuristic, at least to anyone who grew up without them as a given component of everyday life. By next year, half of all searches will be performed by voice, and 30 percent of all searches will be done without a screen, thanks in part to the availability of assistants like Siri, Cortana, and Alexa in smart speakers and mobile devices. You can easily set alarms and notifications for yourself with a simple sentence, yet less than a decade ago, our most advanced voice search processing systems seemed like a joke.

However, any science- and tech-loving geek will probably tell you they’re more interested in the future than the present, even if the present is already futuristic.

What could we possibly expect from the future of AI-powered digital assistants? And what, if anything, could come after them?

Phase One: Proliferation

We’re currently in the first phase of digital assistant development: proliferation. Right now, most tech companies are acutely aware of the potential value in creating their own virtual assistants. The technology is highly scalable, it’s incredibly valuable to consumers and businesses alike, and voice recognition technology is advanced enough that it can be integrated into a number of other functions.

Many companies with an existing, consumer-focused virtual assistant are working on getting their assistants in more consumer hands, in a bid to conquer the market proactively. Already, more than a quarter of adults in the United States own at least one smart speaker (with Amazon Echo leading the charge). Smaller tech companies are fighting to get a piece of the market with their own consumer-focused, general purpose virtual assistants, but the space for development here is somewhat limited.

Phase Two: Specialization

In the years to come, we’ll likely see a push for more specialized digital assistants. In fact, we’re already seeing one now. Rather than developing AI-powered assistants made to help consumers with basic replicable tasks like scheduling items on a calendar or converting liters to gallons on the fly, tech companies are going to start developing assistants that can help specific types of professionals achieve more in their chosen careers.

For example, take Niccolo, an AI-powered platform designed to help salespeople achieve more B2B sales. More than a basic digital assistant, this system will have the power to analyze written communications from clients and make recommendations to salespeople for how to proceed. Utilizing data from thousands to millions of previous interactions, it can help any salesperson move a deal forward. Niccolo is rolling out early next year, making it one of the early examples of this type of specialization in play.

You can expect to see more of these types of assistants across many different roles and many different industries. The level of specialization and in-depth analysis makes these more challenging to develop than a typical, consumer-focused generalized AI, but also makes them more powerful and more profitable.

Phase Three: Hybridization

Beyond phase two, things get difficult to predict. While there are some projects currently in development, designed to create technologies that might not be finished for decades, it’s hard to tell whether these projects will ultimately be successful—and how quickly they can find success.

That said, we can see the notes of a “phase three” of development in phase two. Specialized assistants are designed to help knowledgeable professionals with specific, job-related tasks; in other words, it’s a way to utilize the strengths of both humans and AI systems to capture the best of both worlds. One possible future development along the AI assistant track could be a means of reinforcing this relationship; for example, SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk has proposed a technology called “Neuralink,” which provides a direct interface between a human brain and a digital system. This could greatly multiply the speed and efficiency at which a human and AI assistant could solve a problem or complete a task.

Phase Four: Generalization

It’s a bit ironic that the final stage of AI assistants could end up making them serve a more general purpose, since today’s most popular assistants are designed to be as generic as possible. However, the progress to artificial general intelligence isn’t one to take lightly. Though this type of strong AI is likely decades away (or further), it has the potential to accomplish virtually any human task at an efficiency greater than any human. For now, it’s staying in the realm of science fiction.

While it’s incredibly difficult to make accurate predictions about the future of technology, it seems inevitable that we’ll continue along our current lines of AI development for the foreseeable future. With B2B sales tools and other niche assistants arriving in the coming years, there’s already much to be excited about already. Beyond that, things could easily get even wilder.

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