What are Virtual Assistants?


As voice recognition and gesture-based technologies advance and more recently, converge, we are moving away from the notion of interaction with our devices via a pointer and keyboard. Virtual assistants are the natural end goal of natural user interfaces (NUI), and build on developments in interfaces across the spectrum of engineering, computer science, and biometrics. A new class of smart televisions will be among the first devices to make comprehensive use of the idea. While crude versions of virtual assistants have been around for some time, we have yet to achieve the level of interactivity seen in Apple's classic video, Knowledge Navigator. The Apple iPhone's Siri is a recent mobile-based example, and allows users to control all the functions of the phone, participate in lifelike conversations with users, and more. Microsoft Research is devoting considerable resources to developing NUIs. Virtual assistants for learning are clearly in the long-term horizon, but the potential of the technology to add substance to informal modes of learning is compelling.

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(1) How might this technology be relevant to the educational sector you know best?

  • Virtual personal assistants (think of what Apple and Microsoft are doing, and imagine Google Now in a much more proactive iteration) are becoming another essential, easy-to-use tool for learners of all ages. Many of us have come to think of our tablets and other mobile devices as a library-in-our-pocket; virtual assistants provide information, learning opportunities, and much more at our moment of need; what could be more significant at a time when quick and ready access to information is an essential part of our learning landscape?- paul.signorelli paul.signorelli Aug 31, 2016
  • Virtual Jiminy Crickets on the devices of all our students reminding them to read materials, write assignments, eat properly, get some sleep and ring their parents are here and now, but only if they opt in. Devices that identify patterns, and adjust the regularity and firmness of the suggestions are becoming a reality. Combine this with personal data drawn from big data, could help more students to make a success of their degrees, which would be fantastic. - damian.mcdonald damian.mcdonald Sep 22, 2016

(2) What themes are missing from the above description that you think are important?

  • One aspect of virtual assistants worth noting is that they anticipate and respond to our information needs before we ourselves initiate an interaction (e.g., Google Now, a rudimentary version of technology that paves the way for sophisticated virtual assistants, sends "cards" with helpful/useful/interesting information in a timely fashion: https://www.google.com/search/about/learn-more/now/)--something that was discussed a few years ago as being an essential element of "Web 4.0." - paul.signorelli paul.signorelli Aug 31, 2016
  • Some of the most effective uses of virtual assistants require that students develop new skills related to "thinking with machines", something I also mentioned in the context of the Artificial Intelligence entry.- rubenrp rubenrp Oct 2, 2016

(3) What do you see as the potential impact of this technology on higher education?

  • I remain convinced that this is one of the most significant ed-tech developments in our current learning landscape and believe that when virtual assistants become more sophisticated, they will grow and quickly and have as much impact as tablets did when they were first introduced. They are, in their current (oft-overlooked) iterations, already well on the way to becoming yet another go-to reference source for anyone involved in teaching-training-learning and further support the growth of mobile-learning opportunities.- paul.signorelli paul.signorelli Aug 31, 2016
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(4) Do you have or know of a project working in this area?

  • No actual projects, but Siri, Cortana, and Google Now demonstrate a bit of the potential here.- paul.signorelli paul.signorelli
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