Definition of Intelligent Virtual Assistant (IVA)
An Intelligent Virtual Assistant (IVA) is software that performs tasks or services for an individual based on natural-language commands or questions. It is an application of Artificial Intelligence technologies, most prominently natural language processing (NLP) and learning.
According to an Adobe survey , the most popular platforms to develop voice-enabled technology on are (in descending order) Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant, Apple Siri, Microsoft Cortana, and Samsung Bixby.
A lot of similar and related terms exist. Chatbox.org lists as many as 161 of them, often defined unclearly and used inconsistently. The most common use of some important terms is:
- Intelligent Personal Assistant (IPA) is a synonym for Intelligent Virtual Assistant (IVA).
- Chatbot is software that interacts with humans via textual or auditory means. While the boundary to IVA is floating, ‘Chatbot’ is typically used for systems that can only produce and understand a fixed, predefined set of words or statements, like guiding a user through phone menus.
- Intelligent Virtual Agent is an animated, artificial intelligence virtual character, usually with anthropomorphic appearance. Beyond natural speech, it also performs adequate non-verbal behavior like facial expressions and gesture. An example is True Image Interactive.
- Conversational Agent is either used as a synonym for IVA, or as an umbrella term for any type of software that converses with a human. This would also include a user interface that is for example based on gestures.
- Virtual Assistant is a job role carried out by a human, in which the tasks of a traditional, directly employed office assistant are outsourced to a service provider that offers remotely working ‘virtual’ assistants.
Market - Current Adoption
Relevance for IoT and integration
A) Consumer IoT: convenience and fun
For consumer use, the value of intelligent virtual assistants for controlling IoT objects is obvious. A large portion of private IoT is home automation, and for ‘smart speakers’, performing tasks at home is a primary use case. Home IoT devices often support a very limited set of actions, like the ‘on’ and ‘off’ of a smart lightbulb. The convenience of a new UI for them must be equal or better than the classic flip of a switch. A spoken ‘Alexa, switch the light on’ is most likely more convenient, while searching on a smartphone for the right app certainly is not. In addition, IVAs constitute an integrated user interface for many devices.
According to Amazon, in January 2020 there are more than 100,000 Alexa-compatible smart home products from more than 9,500 brands. For these products, intelligent virtual assistant usage is ubiquitous. As the next front, major IVA vendors are strongly pushing toward in-car usage.
B) Industrial IoT: visualization and control of IoT devices
The relevance of IVAs for Industrial IoT (IIoT) is far less obvious. In those environments, typically a large number of IoT devices generate a stream of event data, which users need to be able to view, aggregate, filter, etc. The visualization with an interactive dashboard remains the best option to make large amounts of event data digestible.
When it comes to issuing commands, the priority of industrial applications is neither convenience nor a low learning curve, but correctness and precision. A crane operator will certainly still prefer to operate the crane with a sidestick. The imprecision and risk of misunderstanding that lies in the nature of natural language are even less acceptable with more that is at stake.
Further impediments of intelligent virtual assistant usage in professional environments include environmental noise and lack of continuous online connectivity. Nevertheless, there are professional use cases. One is if the hands and eyes are occupied. The mentioned crane operator may want to control the heating of the cabin by voice command. Companies like Spectra offer industrial voice control solutions and corresponding offerings. However, this is not related to IoT, and while it is a good additional option, it is not a disruptive technology.
Already in 2016, the Boston Children’s Hospital experimented with an IVA steering an endoscopic camera. Interestingly, the driver was the hospital as an end user of the camera. Similar to other technologies, professional adoption of IVAs may be driven by consumer adoption. Software AG expects IVAs to drive Industrial IoT in that all devices are expected to be ‘things’ that are controllable over interfaces available on the network, which can be leveraged by IVAs.
C) Customer Service: verbal interaction on complex IoT related topics
IVA adoption is strongly growing in banking, telecommunication, healthcare, government, and all other sectors where customer service and interaction plays a major role. For example, after some inertia (caused by security and privacy topics), voice assistants for banking are strongly on the rise.
Like in IIoT, IVA usage in an industry like banking is not an IoT use case per se. However, many advanced IoT use cases exist in banking, as a lot of event data is generated that can be analyzed with streaming analytics. Software AG expects a growing demand for connecting the IVA and advanced IoT technologies. For example, streaming analytics is set up to generate alerts if a customer’s stock portfolio develops a certain way. The alerts are not issued by a simple text message, but by the customer being called by an IVA. The IVA explains the situation and supports advanced questions like ‘how is my stock portfolio’s volatility this year compared to the NASDAQ?’
Market - Outlook
In summary, the strong adoption rate of intelligent virtual assistants in a variety of markets is well-documented and they are expected to go from success to success. This will include industrial and also IoT use cases. However, a clear advantage of voice communication over other means of communication has to be established upfront; just being a novelty is not a sufficient driver for adoption in professional environments.