virtual assistant (AI assistant)

What is a virtual assistant (AI assistant)?

A virtual assistant, also called AI assistant or digital assistant, is an application program that understands natural language voice commands and completes tasks for the user.

Such tasks, historically performed by a personal assistant or secretary, include taking dictation, reading text or email messages aloud, looking up phone numbers, scheduling, placing phone calls and reminding the end user about appointments. Popular virtual assistants currently include Amazon Alexa, Apple's Siri, Google Assistant and Microsoft's Cortana.

Types of virtual assistants

Though this definition focuses on the digital form of virtual assistants, the term virtual assistant, or virtual personal assistant, is also commonly used to describe contract workers who work from home doing administrative tasks typically performed by executive assistants or secretaries.

Virtual assistants can also be contrasted with another type of consumer-facing AI programming, like chatbots and conversational agents. However, the three serve different purposes for customers and provide different levels of assistance.

A chart comparing chatbots, conversational agents and virtual assistants
Virtual assistants are often compared to chatbots and conversational agents, but the three technologies are not the same.

Virtual assistant devices and technology

Virtual assistants are typically cloud-based programs that require internet-connected devices and/or applications to work. Three such applications are the following:

  • Siri on Apple devices;
  • Cortana on Microsoft devices; and
  • Google Assistant on Android devices.

There are also devices dedicated to providing virtual assistance. The most popular ones are available from Amazon, Google and Microsoft. To use the Amazon Echo virtual assistant, called Alexa, users call out the wake word, "Alexa." A light on the device signals to the user it is ready to receive a command, which typically involves simple language requests, such as "what is the weather today," or "play pop music." Those requests are processed and stored in Amazon's cloud.

The technologies that power virtual assistants require massive amounts of data, which feeds artificial intelligence (AI) platforms, including machine learning, natural language processing and speech recognition platforms. As the end user interacts with a virtual assistant, the AI programming uses sophisticated algorithms to learn from data input and become better at predicting the end user's needs.

Capabilities of virtual assistants

Virtual assistants typically perform simple jobs for end users, including the following:

  • adding tasks to a calendar;
  • providing information that would normally be searched in a web browser;
  • controlling and checking the status of smart home devices, including lights, cameras and thermostats;
  • making and receiving phone calls;
  • creating text messages;
  • getting directions;
  • hearing news and weather reports;
  • finding hotels or restaurants;
  • checking flight reservations;
  • listening to music; and
  • playing games.

Privacy concerns

Some consumers have expressed privacy concerns about virtual assistants, such as Amazon Alexa and Google Home, because these virtual assistants require large amounts of personal data and are always "listening" in order to respond to voice commands. Virtual assistants then retain voice interactions and personal information to improve the user experience.

Cortana, for example, works best by using data from a user's device, including emails and other communications, a user's contacts, location data, search history and data from other Microsoft services and skills -- third-party applications -- that users choose to connect with. Users can choose not to sign in and share this data with Cortana and can adjust permissions to prevent certain data from being collected, though these actions limit the virtual assistant's usefulness.

Virtual assistant providers also maintain privacy policies, which define how each company uses and shares personal information. In most cases, companies do not share customer-identifiable information without a customer's consent.

The future of virtual assistants

Virtual assistants are quickly evolving to provide more capabilities and value to users. As speech recognition and NLP have advanced, so too have the virtual assistant's ability to understand and perform requests. And as voice recognition technology continues to improve, virtual assistant use will move deeper into business workflows.

Tomorrow's virtual assistants will be built with more advanced cognitive computing technologies, which will allow a virtual assistant to understand and carry out multistep requests and perform more complex tasks, such as making a plane reservation.

Editor's note: This article was written by Bridget Botelho in 2017. TechTarget editors revised it in 2022 to improve the reader experience.

This was last updated in December 2022

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