These terms have been tossed around loosely in various contexts, but what do they really mean? Like really.
For some, Virtual assistant is an occupation. It is a person who provides support services to other businesses from a remote location. For others, a virtual assistant, also called AI assistant or digital assistant, is an application program that understands natural language voice commands and helps users to accomplish tasks. Here we focus on the virtual assistants who live in computer systems.
Imagine a rich and famous person. In your mind, this person is likely to have a personal chauffeur, a secretary at work, and a butler at home. While getting a personal digital chauffeur is a work-in-progress with self-driving cars still being tested in several parts of the world, a digital virtual assistant is very much a secretary and a butler for the less rich and famous common people like us.
Virtual assistants (VAs): cloud-based computer systems which are programmed to understand user’s command and assist humans in varied ways; I.e. ordering a cab, scheduling an appointment, turning on the air-conditioning unit, or searching for specific information
Siri was the very first digital virtual assistant installed on a smartphone. There are limited capabilities for Siri even though it is entertaining with its “knock knock” jokes, and robotic versions of “what does the fox say”. That said, it has made progress over the years. In the recent ISO 13, it has also collaborated with Shortcuts to allow users to create their own custom trigger voice command and the resulting action or combination of actions. It is also facing competition from all other tech firms. Like award-winning VA applications such as 24me as well as Google Assistant. Which by the way, if you are an Iphone user like me, you might notice this tug-o-war on the control on the VA training materials behind the scenes. Google’s Assistant has access to Siri & Search while Siri & Search continues to learn from Google Assistant while you are using it on Apple’s hardware.
Settings for Assistant Application
Besides Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, Google’s Assistant, Microsoft’s Cortana, players in the Chatbot industry tend to refer to their AI Chatbots as Virtual Assistants as well. The elephant has been left unaddressed in the room, until now.
Are chatbots the same as virtual assistants?
This question stopped us in our tracks, we re-evaluated why we used these terms in the first place. Last year, Forbes responded to this question by stating “Yes, Chatbots and Virtual Assistants Are Different”. The conclusion drawn was that Virtual Assistants are more ‘intelligent’ than Chatbots, because VAs supposedly have contextual knowledge whereas Chatbots don’t. However, we do not think that this claim is fair to VAs or Chatbots either way (assuming they are different).
This is perhaps as cliché as it can get but it is true.
If You Judge a Fish by Its Ability to Climb a Tree,
It Will Live Its Whole Life Believing that It is Stupid.
– Albert Einstein
VAs and Chatbots can be both applications of AI, using conversational interfaces, moving towards the goal of attaining human intelligence or beyond. However, one is not better than the other – they simply serve different purposes, and hence perform differently.
That being said, there are also many applications of Chatbots that are not powered by a knowledge base or AI. These are rule based Chatbots, or Chatbots with clear predefined flows or guided paths, that are presented to users typically in a button click format. Users will select their preferred options according to the choice they require, and deviation from the predefined paths are not possible. There is no natural language understanding capabilities for these type of Chatbots, except for simple keyword/phrase matching. However, they do serve the purpose of providing users with simple information. There are many freemium platforms online that small businesses can utilise to build their simple Chatbots to get started. However, these platforms may have certain limitations for robustness of understanding users’ language, customizations, integrations and lesser security or backup measures as enterprise ready solutions.
Scope vs Depth?
Virtual Assistants appear superior due to their wider coverage of capabilities. They are capable of a variety of useful, everyday commands (be it at home or at the professional workplace), and knowledge across domains. This gives the illusion that Virtual Assistant is more powerful due to the “dynamic flow”. When a virtual assistant “breaks”, it points user’s queries to search engine results. While a Chatbot which has not been linked to search engines does not have such a convenient exit strategy, it is possible to hook it up with one.
However, Chatbots have stronger and deeper domain knowledge which it excels in and this knowledge may not always be answerable using Google. If you were to visualize the knowledge of a Chatbot versus that of a VA, it would look something like this:
Scope vs Depth
For this reason, it can then be said that Chatbots typically serve the function of information provision and dissemination, while VAs help the end user accomplish a certain task or carry out an action.
Business Use vs Personal Use?
Another interesting observation we made is that most VAs today are for personal consumption. Siri is every iPhone user’s handy pocket assistant; while Google Home and Amazon Alexa have established firm footholds in households around the world, helping families switch on and operate home appliances.
Whereas Chatbots are usually created by businesses to solve a problem statement. An insurance company with high drop-off rates at their call center may deploy a Customer Service Chatbot to help field commonly asked questions; a logistics company with overwhelming requests to change delivery details may deploy a Transactional Chatbot to help automate customer change requests.
While these differences may exist for now, we see more and more chatbots performing tasks for their end users, and VAs learning more domain knowledge; this convergence shows that each has its own merits that the other is trying to replicate. Chatbots aim to be specialists, while VAs tend to perform more like generalists. Both are striving to grow in their own directions to become the ultimate assistant to serve all our needs. Though they may still be different now, this difference will close as they both become more integrated, and approach the end goal of displaying human-like behavior and intelligence to aid humankind.