What’s Next For UC? Automated “Personal Assistants!”
Mobile access to online applications is opening the door to more self-services as well as more proactive contacts with end users with smartphones and tablets. Mobile services like Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana, and Google Now, are also exploiting the convenience of natural language voice inputs to enable a variety of functions to be accessed and controlled faster and more easily than by typing, pushing buttons, or even by gesturing.
The speech interface for applicant input, however, doesn’t necessarily mean that output is limited to voice, as in the old days of IVR applications for telephony self-services. Since interfacing easily with business processes allows users to move away from first requiring contact with a person to access information, perform simple tasks and transactions, the big driver for operational performance and productivity is to automate everything we can, while still allowing end users to control everything.
The label for such personalized automation is the “Personal Assistant,” which as defined in Wikipedia, can be one of two types. The first type simply performs any task that the user requests “on demand.” The second type automatically performs ongoing tasks based on schedules, status monitoring, or events. Either approach may require interacting with the end user to notify or confirm with them the results of the task. So, just like a live personal assistant, easy, direct communications between an end user and a Personal Assistant is necessary.
This fits in well with my perspective of UC as “unified interactions” (UI?), since it is not just about person-to-person contacts, but must also include contact with any automated business process application (CEBP). Enabling Personal Assistants to become involved in any person-to-person interaction, brings up some interesting possibilities for reducing the usually delays normally encountered when people try to manually make real-time contacts.
The Different Hats of a Personal Assistant
Just like people, communications require a virtual Personal Assistant to wear different hats, i.e., as a contact initiator or a contact recipient. In addition, the Personal Assistant must be able to handle all modalities of communication contact, whether messages or phone calls, whether from a person or an automated application (including other people’s Personal Assistants).
With so many ways of communicating anywhere, any time, anyhow, an important role for a Personal Assistant is that of screening incoming calls and messages to ensure that the recipient’s time priorities are under control. That would include differentiating “expected” calls and messages that need timely notification, as well as deferring the many notification messages that are not important or time sensitive. Several types of personal “buddy lists” for IM would be one of the resources employed by the Personal Assistant.
I am sure you have all heard about the role that “presence” plays in UC, but one of the hang-ups encountered so far is that it requires “federation” between different organization systems. However, if “presence management” becomes a Personal Assistant service responsibility, it can remove the obstacles of location and organization.
When basic task events have to be coordinated or confirmed, it will be easier and more efficient to have a Personal Assistant take care of such things, rather than requiring the end users to do it personally. If language is a part of a communication problem, it may also be useful to have a Personal Assistant do any translation required.
Voice-to-text messaging will become an important role for Personal Assistants, since we all know that speaking is faster and easier than texting, especially for mobile users. On the other hand, reading is faster and more efficient than listening to a message, especially if it contains information that needs to be transcribed and saved. So, even though we have business services that perform that chore (voicemail-to-text, Apple’s IOS7 text message dictation), why not simply make it an option for the Personal Assistant that already understands your voice?
Personal Assistants and “Invisible” Mobile Apps
Mobility is bringing self-services to the table of all types of end users, to the point that there is really just a huge list of functional information tasks that a user may want, either personally, in doing business, or as part of a job responsibility. As highlighted in Kleiner Perkins' annual review of Internet trends by Mary Meeker, we are moving from online portals to specific single function apps to “invisible” apps that are triggered automatically based on personalized user need. (See the UCStrategies podcast about this presentation.)
Well, guess what? There are now going to be too many things being triggered automatically, and while these may all be useful and desirable, the mobile end users will still need to remain in control. So, I would expect that the Personal Assistant will help manage any automated contact action or notification activities from such “invisible” apps, perhaps based upon “context” or urgency priorities. We’ll see how this all plays out!
Where Do UC-enabled Personal Assistants Fit In Best? – The “Cloud!”
UC has always meant flexibility in choosing modes of communication, whether as a contact initiator or a contact recipient. This flexibility will be just as important to an end user’s Personal Assistants, in that messages can be generated or converted as required for the dynamic needs of individual mobile users. In addition to handling incoming contacts of all kinds, a Personal Assistant can automate the chores of initiating outbound contacts/responses, including the old “getting someone on the line” as soon as possible, or coordinating all aspects of a voice or video conference call.
Recognizing that business users don’t only communicate with people within their own organizations, we have to extend the benefits of a Personal Assistant to all mobile BYOD users. That means using the Internet, rather than just the PSTN for Personal Assistant activities, and that, in turn, will mean a “cloud” environment. That is also where Personal Assistants and Mobile Apps can interoperate efficiently and have common access to all kinds of information storage. So, I will expect to see “Personal Assistants as a Service” (PAaaS) as the new kid in the consumer services block.
Needless to say there is a lot of infrastructure technology that has to come together in order for end users to realize all the benefits of Personal Assistants. The big challenge will be how to migrate easily and cost effectively from a variety of legacy telephony communications and messaging technologies to the multimodal, “mobile first” future of business interactions between people and business process applications in the “clouds.” Technology providers who have long specialized in supporting telephony integrations and interoperability are already starting to incorporate mobile Personal Assistant capabilities in their service offerings for upgrading legacy telephony systems.