Cisco Blogs

The Rise of the Virtual Assistant

- May 26, 2016 - 3 Comments

On May 10, the world-class admin behind John Chambers’s success was honored with one of the top awards in her field: Debbie Gross received the Colleen Barrett Award for Administrative Excellence.

Clearly, Debbie is a force. This CNBC story gives us a peek into her life keeping John at the top of his game. People are rightly saying she’s a role model for next-generation administrators. But what people aren’t saying is that some next-gen admins are made not of flesh and blood like Debbie but of compute cycles.

For the record, I do not believe virtual assistants will ever fully replace human ones. Just like televised baseball will never fully replace seats behind home plate and video will never fully replace a deal-sealing handshake, there will always be excellent admins like Debbie Gross behind incredible minds like John Chambers. But massive change is coming to this profession—and others.

Change Gets Exponential
Of course, the change started many years ago, and it started pretty slowly. Dictation, words per minute—such skills were the coin of the executive-assistant realm. The best admins found ways to use computers and services so they could scale.

Those types of changes are about to start happening at warp speed, thanks to advances in machine intelligence and natural language processing (NLP).  Ray Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns is at play here; we’re done with linear change and change will happen exponentially very, very quickly from here on out.

Computers will be able to do more rote tasks faster and better than any human. By off-loading these tasks to a virtual teammate, just think of the possibilities for the Debbie Gross’ of the world. And while not every team will be able to have a real-life Debbie, just think of the possibilities if every team gets one or more of these virtual teammates.

What happens when we provide an amazing assistant to everyone in the world? What happens if an overburdened teacher in Chicago gets access to a virtual assistant at the push of a button on a smart phone? What would the amazing executive assistants of the world be freed to do if their most routine tasks were suddenly done by a computer instead?

We aren’t quite there yet, but we are really, really close. I am not talking might-happen-before-your-grandkids-have-grandkids type of timeframe. I am talking next-five-years fast. Incredulous? Then watch this mind-blowing video of Siri co-founder Dag Kittlaus at Disrupt NY last week.

In it, Kittlaus’s artificial intelligence “personal assistant platform” orders his mother’s favorite flowers for her birthday and tells him to pack a jacket for an evening stroll across the Golden Gate Bridge in a few days. Kittlaus talks to the virtual assistant the same way he’d talk to a “real” assistant—in complex, normal language—and the assistant actually writes its own code to get to an answer.

You read that right: The software writes itself to solve complex problems really, really fast.

The Next Frontier: Personality for the Virtual Assistants
The main challenge remaining is to give this new technology one thing Kittlaus’s assistant is missing that Debbie has in spades — that’s personality and the ability to build relationships. We like working with people who have opinions and quirks—people who are interesting.

We’ll want our virtual assistants to be interesting, too. We need to trust our new teammates and that means we need to want to develop relationships with them. This goes way beyond the Siri-type novelty of selecting whether the voice is male or female, or has an English or Australian accent. Smart people all over Silicon Valley—including here at Cisco—are solving for that right this very second.

Do you feel threatened — or excited — by the idea of virtual teammates? Let me know on Twitter @rowantrollope


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  1. Wonderful article Rowan! It is true that virtual assistance is now on its peak because of the uprising technology. Most of the small scale businesses choose to have VAs because of the convenience of having them and it is relatively cheaper than having an SEO. A good GVA can perform almost any task. Mariane Lacaba (Elitework)

    Rise of the machines? We wander through a machine's dreams (thank you Geoff Tate - I will remember) every day, now they will be wandering through ours. We will be toast when the machines start making our dreams rather than us making theirs.

      More context to my comment