Welcome to the new era of the personal assistant

The job of a personal assistant supporting the rich and powerful can be traced back 2,000 years. Marcus Tullius Tiro, the personal assistant of Roman senator Cicero (106 BC to 43 BC), is one of the best-documented personal assistants. Tiro’s duties included taking dictation, transcribing notes from a wax tablet to a papyrus and debt collection.

The modern personal assistant has entered the greater public consciousness thanks to the media industry. Movies like the James Bond series, Driving Miss Daisy and The Devil Wears Prada have introduced different types of personal assistants, each with specific duties and skills to support their boss.

Miss Moneypenny knew about her majesty’s secret service, and was able to engage in flirtatious conversation: “Flattery will get you nowhere, but don’t stop trying” she told James in Dr. No. But it is when Miranda Priestly expressed her dissatisfaction with the work of her personal assistant Andy Sachs – “Is there some reason that my coffee isn’t here? Has she died or something?” – that she points to the core duty of any good personal assistant: to get the job done and to do so perfectly.

Depending on who the personal assistant works for, duties vary greatly and range from traditional note-taking to the services otherwise provided by a butler, driver, project manager, or friend. The general attributes of a good personal assistant include intelligence, strong communication, and the ability to learn, remember preferences, solve problems, keep information confidential and anticipate what needs to be done. But equally important is a deep understanding of the context. Andy Sachs needed to know about fashion and cerulean blue, which I suspect was of little interest to Hoke Colburn who was more interested in automobiles.

The virtual personal assistant

More recently, a multitude of software agents commonly known as Virtual Personal Assistants or Intelligent Personal Assistants have emerged to assist the less rich and powerful among us. With the belief that most personal assistants are intelligent beings, I favour the term Virtual Personal Assistant.

These virtual personal assistants, digital in nature and connected in ways unimaginable, can perform a variety of tasks at a user’s request, such as finding information online, helping solve problems, filter information, organise day-to-day activities, or simply set an alarm. Some have the intelligence to predict what needs to be done, such as reminding a user when they should leave to be on time for a meeting.

For many, the assistants found on smartphones are those we have become familiar with. They’re generally good at helping use the many features of a smartphone, but are not always able to actually get the job done and do so perfectly. So while I can ask the assistant on my phone to find an Italian restaurant, it can’t physically get me there. It may serve up reviews and directions, but then it’s up to me to relay that information to my car. This is one example of why we need a tighter connection between the virtual assistant and the in-car system.

The need for an automotive assistant

With the emergence of advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS), carmakers add technology to cars to deliver on their vision and promise of a safer drive. My wife bought such a car: a sedan packed with advanced ADAS functions such as dynamic cruise control, lane change assist, blind spot detection and other safety-enhancing features. Recently, she allowed me to use her car for a business trip, which gave me some firsthand experience.

During a two-hour highway drive to our Aachen office , I decided to activate Dynamic Cruise Control (DCC), which lets the car decide when to break and accelerate according to the current traffic situation. DCC was breaking far too early to my liking, and I experienced how difficult it can be to try to change the default settings of the function. I desperately needed a virtual personal assistant to help me out.

Could my smartphone assistant help? I pressed the voice button and asked: “How do I configure dynamic cruise control?” My VPA understood me perfectly, and displayed a list of web search results starting with “BMW Technology Guide.” Doesn’t it know that I’m driving a different brand? I decided it was time for a short fuel and coffee break since I could not safely read my phone while driving. I pressed the voice button and said, “Drive me to a Shell gas station” (I have a Shell fuel card). It responded with a gas station that was kilometers behind me. What’s going on? My mobile virtual assistant seemed to know as much about cars and driving as Hoke Culburn knows about fashion.

What I needed was an automotive assistant with deep understanding of the car and an ability to meet my driving-related needs to get the job done and to do so perfectly. It would answer any question I have about my car and help schedule service when needed. It would find my preferred gas station along my route, or even better – plan a stop and ensure that I still arrive in time for my meeting. It would understand that a perfect business meal involves more than finding a sponsored restaurant, and includes unbiased reviews, availability, budget, trouble-free parking and notifying all invitees of the meeting time and location.

And of course, it would do all of this work for me, while ensuring that I can focus on a safe drive. In fact, recent research conducted by Nuance supports this. Tests showed a reduction in collision rate when the automotive assistant considered information from crash avoidance sensors (and then knew when to keep quiet to lessen distraction) compared to systems that could not factor in this information.

We’ve come a long way since the days of Tiro, but the concept of a personal assistant holds true: whether virtual or human form, they must do a job and do it well. The automotive assistant is coming, and only the carmakers will be able to deliver the in-car user experience that will perfectly meet the needs of drivers, and do so while keeping us safe.

Eric Montague, Director of Product Marketing & Strategy at Nuance Communications

Image Credit: Shutterstock / Kentoh