Within recent years, the digital assistant has assertively embedded itself into the fabric of American lives. In fact, according to a 2017 report by the Pew Research Center, 46% of US adults use a digital voice assistant. 42% of US adults use voice assistants on a smartphone, 14% use a computer or a tablet, and 8% use a stand-alone device. As the market floods with more and more devices with the same abilities, this number will likely go up. Ovum, a research and consulting firm, predicts that by 2021, “the native digital assistant installed base is set to exceed 7.5 billion active devices.”
The beginnings of what would become digital assistants, as we know them today, starts in the mid 20th century. Created by Bell Laboratories in 1952, the Audrey system was a speech recognition device that recognized spoken digits. In 1962, IBM unveiled a speech recognition machine. The device recognized 16 words and digits from 0 to 9. To operate the device, one spoke through a microphone. The words were changed into electrical impulses, and it was these impulses that compelled a response from the machine. Another major advancement in speech recognition came in the form of the Harpy voice recognition system. Harpy understood around 1000 words. In 1990, Dragon released the first consumer speech recognition product.
A more widely known digital assistant, although not voice operated, was Microsoft’s Clippit. Nicknamed Clippy, the office assistant was a cartoon paper clip, integrated into Windows, whose sole ambition was to help users. Despite Clippy’s best efforts, the digital assistant is most often remembered for his expressive eyes and over eagerness. All these innovations, even Clippy, have led to the digital assistants that have flooded the lives of people around the world.
Apple has Siri. Amazon has Alexa. Microsoft has Cortana. Google, perhaps more impersonally, calls their device an assistant. Tastes may vary, but the assistants, no matter their names, generally all have the same goal: make life easier.
However, like with any great technological advance, factors for manufacturers to consider pop up. Digital assistants may not go all HAL-9000 or Samantha in the near future, but people do have concerns about their privacy. Some wonder if the machines are listening at all times. Are they recording even when they’re not responding? In the same Pew report, 27% of people who did not use digital assistant technology said they didn’t because of privacy concerns. Furthermore, security against hackers is a concern that has to be taken into account. There have also been legal questions of what can be used from a digital assistant in cases that go to court.
Obviously, these are all important issues to consider. These concerns are also an excellent example of why standards are necessary. With so many different companies pursuing the same goal, the technology being used is still relatively new. The concerns mentioned aren’t going away and more will pop up. As the technology grows, manufacturers will have to meet the challenges of technological progression head on.
What’s the future of digital assistants? Only time will tell. Manufacturers are constantly innovating, updating the functions of digital assistants, and trying to keep pace with one another. Offering a hands-free mode of gathering information without a heavy reliance on screens might just be the start. Maybe habit-learning devices are the new frontier. Maybe Clippy was just a misunderstood genius. What seems clear is digital assistants are not going away anytime soon.