Virtual Digital Assistants

A virtual digital assistant (VDA) can come in many forms, from a relatively basic text-based assistant to a full-fledged, multi-modal digital assistant. VDAs are automated digital systems that assist the user in many ways, from enabling self-service through a back-end database of frequently asked questions (FAQs) in a search tool as found on many enterprise websites, to a conversational speech-based interaction with a VDA to facilitate scheduling, calling, dictation for emails, or text messages as found on many smartphones today such as Google Now, Microsoft’s Cortana and Apple’s Siri.

The GUI interface which made computing more accessible to a huge audience is reaching its limits in terms of productivity.  We frequently find ourselves trying to juggle running seven applications, eight tool-bars and twenty five browser tabs of applications that will not interact with each other.  Using Excel to produce complex spreadsheets requires knowledge of multi-level menus and functions that are hidden to more casual users.  Imagine if we could simply ask the computer to do what we wanted, how much more productive we would be.  No more having to find and click that menu option, no more typing every command and function.  The ability to do this is here now in the form of virtual assistants.

Tractica, a market intelligence company, predict that by 2020, VDAs will be present in  more than 3.3 billion consumer devices including smartphones, tablets, smart watches, PCs, smart home devices and vehicles.

This research is very consumer focused, in parallel there are also similar changes occurring in the business community.  The transition of business applications to the cloud will mean that it’s going to be easy to include a VDA and these will become an integral part of business applications.  These VDA’s will be a new generation of intelligent, more context aware applications capable of really adding value to business applications.

According to a Gartner report, “Cloud computing will make virtual personal assistant technologies ubiquitous in the digital workplace, automating complex business tasks and increasing worker productivity”  (Baker & Andrews, 2015).

This will be a major change and it will be a challenge for businesses to adapt and learn how to best integrate and utilise this resource.

Let’s take an example of a task such as contacting a bank to inquire about a loan application.  The immediate difference is that you will not be placed on hold or in a queue, a virtual digital assistant (VDA) will answer immediately.  The next major difference is that you will not be presented with lots of options to choose from (in order to direct your call to the correct operator!).  You will tell the VDA what you wish to know using normal speech.  The VDA will access your application based on the information you provide, perhaps name and date of birth.   The VDA can then tell you the status of your application and you can ask further questions to get more detail.  The complete experience will be similar to walking into a bank and talking to the person who is actually processing your loan application.  Something that is practically impossible today given the way banks operate!

The expectation is that these assistants will get to know the user and understand their habits and way of working enabling them to interact quicker.  Being cloud based means these assistants can be upgraded frequently and have access to the knowledge (intelligence) of all the other assistants meaning that there will be an exponential growth in their capabilities.

Science fiction writers take this a step further with the virtual assistants connected directly into our brains, able to intercept our thoughts and provide information seamlessly without any outward indication of doing so.  For now this is science fiction but perhaps it’s not as far into the future as we may think.


Baker, V. L. & Andrews, W., 2015. IT Strategists Must Prepare for the Rise of Virtual Personal Assistants in the Workplace. [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 27 February 2016].

Bataller, C. & Harris, J., 2015. Turning cognitive computing into business value. [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 03 March 2016].

Gartner, 2014. Predicts 2015: The Digital Workplace Underscores the Benefits of a Consumerized Work Environment. [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 27 February 2016].

Tractica, 2015. Virtual Digital Assistant Technology is Expanding. [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 25 March 2016].

Vaughan, J., 2015. IBM Watson APIs hold key to broader cognitive computing use. [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 20 February 2016].


5 thoughts on “Virtual Digital Assistants

  1. Nice post James, I hadn’t come across this area before, very interesting indeed.
    So i don’t need to worry about eventually learning to touch type?!, bye,bye, carpal tunnel and repetitive stress injuries!
    I do think this is a logical progression, I can easily envisage a future where office workers dictate to a google glass type interface (it’s too early for its time, but it is coming almost certainly to my mind) and the computer does the heavy lifting. Humans will be primarily complex or moral decision makers.


  2. That right, you can forget about typing, throw away the mouse and keyboard. Don’t even have to learn foreign languages as the Virtual Assistant will automatically translate for you!


  3. Very interesting.
    There is very little doubt of the virtual assistant not becoming ubiquitous in my opinion, its just too useful, and appealing. A lot of manufacturers are also looking to incorporate some form of the technology into their products to add sophistication.


  4. @Kai, that is a very interesting area and one in which I would expect to see a lot of research done in the future. We do need to learn what will the impact on our brains of having this availability to knowledge without having to work for it.
    If we can access answers to almost any question using a VDA, what will we need to use our brains for? thinking of the next question?


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