Will I be replaced by a robot?

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I have seen a few news articles over the last year which talk about the rise of the robot and AI intelligence. A recent one from information-age.com asked ‘when will AI bots replace virtual assistants?’ – although they concluded this wouldn’t be happening any time soon!

It’s an interesting question and makes me wonder, with the rise of Siri, Cortana and similar virtual assistants, if the term ‘virtual assistant’ for the human kind is perhaps becoming outdated

However, the real question is, how good are these AI bots in comparison to their human equivalent. Well, the reality is, actually they are unnervingly good! I recently met my first bot assistant when scheduling a meeting for a client – the email conversation went something like this (details removed for confidentiality purposes):

The person my client was due to meet closed their email with:

‘Alex, please could you find some time… in July’? Best to liaise with Holly.’

About an hour and a half later (not unusual when you’re dealing with a busy PA) I received an email from Alex:

‘Hi Holly, I hope you are doing well. Does any time during the following slots (London Time) work to meet at … If not, could you please give me a few slots that work for you? Please let me know and I will send an invite shortly. Thanks!’

If I’d have been paying attention, at this point, I would have noticed Alex’s signature ‘Your Smart Virtual Assistant by Skedool.it’ but I hadn’t and I hadn’t twigged I was actually talking to a robot. This is because Alex’s replies were conversationalist , so it wasn’t immediately obvious I wasn’t conversing with a human.

My reply:

‘Thank you for sending the dates across…. is on leave at the beginning of July then off to a conference… please can you send some dates in w/c 25 July’

Alex:

‘Definitely, here are some options (London Time). Please let me know what works best’.

I won’t bore you with the remainder of the email conversation, but at this point I was suspicious. Although Alex’s replies were conversational, there was something about the exchange which wasn’t quite right.

What was interesting for me was, as the dialogue progressed, I requested that the calendar invitation be sent to my client and a member of their team, which Alex promptly did. Many times when making the same request from my human counterparts I have still been copied in regardless.

This is where humans and robots differ. Humans will often make decisions based on their own preferences and experiences, whereas a robot will generally just do as requested. However, experience is an important tool in an assistant’s kit. It allows us to proactively manage our boss’ changing priorities and this will be reflected in our scheduling and task management. I can’t even begin to imagine how a bot would be able to proactively navigate shifting priorities.

There are also many softer skills to a PA’s role regardless of whether the PA is virtual or on-site. These skills include negotiation and relationship management, which I don’t think a bot would be able to do.

Robots are becoming more intelligent and are getting better at understanding human responses, but I don’t think we need to worry just yet that they’ll be replacing human virtual assistants. Although, they have fooled a few people. Rumour has it Alex has been sent flowers and has been asked out on a few dates!

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