Intelligent Personal Assistants

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Various kinds of intelligent personal assistants

List of intelligent personal assistants entries:

Intelligent personal assistants, also called virtual assistants, are software applications or devices that can assist the user with tasks, planning, or retrieving information, similar to a human assistant. This technology usually fully utilizes the sensors present on the device it runs on for contextual awareness. In this way it can deliver more accurate and relevant information. Modern intelligent personal assistants are able to learn based on previous input so they can offer better, more personalized results to the user.

Personal assistants that are for the general consumer are, for example, the Apple Siri, Microsoft Cortana, or Amazon Echo. Advanced Artificial Intelligences (AIs) that can also be utilized as intelligent personal assistants in some applications include for example IBM Watson.

Main Characteristics

These assistants usually take the form of an app or a device that acts as an interface for the user. Through this interface, the user can issue queries and commands to the assistant's software either by voice or by text.[1] The end-user interface is able to understand natural language, retrieve relevant information from it, and pass the now parsed query to a server on which the actual assistant's software runs. The query is processed and appropriate information is retrieved, or action undertaken, and the result is sent back to the user interface where it is displayed by text and, often, read aloud using speech synthesis.[2]

The software is usually found on personal, hand-held devices, mainly smartphones. The assistant then can be available at any time, provided there is a connection to the Internet, as no processing is actually done on the device itself.[3] The first widely available personal assistant software was Siri. There are many software personal assistant currently, e.g. Cortana, Google Now or Amazon Alexa.[4]

The software personal assistants are also used in smart home kits, which also represent intelligent personal assistants. These devices process voice commands and control the smart home environment. The pathfinder of these devices was Amazon Echo, but Google Home, is also now available.[5]

Historical overview

One of the earliest examples of an electronic personal assistant engine is Apple's Knowledge Navigator[6] from 1987. John Sculley, then Apple CEO, demonstrated the vision of an artificial intelligence application that helps the user in an academic setting.[7] Sculley wanted something that would accompany his keynote speech and opted for a short 'science-fiction' video from human-computer interaction researcher William Buxton. The group created a short video[8] showing their idea about what the interaction between the user and the virtual assistant may look like in the year 2011. The video was originally meant only as a showcase of technologies that Sculley would highlight in his keynote, but Apple liked the concept and created several sequels for marketing purposes.[9]

During the 1990s, Microsoft introduced two personal assistants, Bob and Clippit.[10] Microsoft presented Microsoft Bob in 1995, as an assistant in its Windows 3.1 software. Microsoft Bob should have provided a more user friendly environment, but it was also criticised and therefore it was removed from the later versions of the product.[11] Clippit was introduced by Microsoft in its product Office 1997. It was intended to be a user guide and assistant. Clippit was the default character; customers could install other characters, but Clippit was the prevalent assistant. Although it should have helped users of Microsoft Office, the majority of users found it annoying and unhelpful. Several parodies on this character were also produced.[12] Due to criticism from customers, Clippit and other assistants were removed from Microsoft Office 2008.[10]


The first genuine intelligent personal assistant to be publicly available, is Siri. Siri's development arose from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), via the project CALO (Cognitive Assistant that Learns and Organizes). The aim of the program was to develop software that could help military commanders with organisation. In 2003, DARPA started a cooperative venure with SRI Inc., a nonprofit research institute that was founded by Stanford University. The project was successful. They developed an artificial intelligence that could process the required tasks. Moreover, these AI could learn in real time from experience.[13] Their personal assistant was commercialised by Siri Inc., which developed Siri. Siri was acquired by Apple in 2010 and introduced as an app for iPhone 4s in 2011.[14] The introduction of Siri inspired the personal assistants of other companies such as Google Now, Microsoft Cortana, and Amazon Alexa.[4]

The development of intelligent personal assistant devices was based on the intelligent personal assistant's software. The first intelligent personal assistant device was Amazon Echo, which uses Amazon Alexa's speech synthesis. The device was unveiled 6th November 2014. Although it appeared rather surprisingly,[15] it achieved great success[16] and was followed by similar projects from other companies such as Google Home, Apple HomeKit and Mycroft.[4]


Intelligent personal assistants are software applications or devices that can assist the user in daily activities, navigation, information retrieval, and organisation.

Important Dates

  • 1987: Apple Knowledge Navigator was presented[6]
  • 1995: Microsoft incorporated Bob in its Windows software[11]
  • 1996: Clippit was introduced as a part of Microsoft Office 1997 software[12]
  • 4th February 2010: Siri Inc. unveiled Siri[17]
  • 9th July 2012: Google Now was released for smart devices with Android 4.1[18]
  • August 2014: Microsoft released the beta version of Cortana[19]
  • 6th November 2014: Amazon Echo was unveiled[15]
  • 9th May 2016: Viv was introduced[20]
  • 4th October 2016: Google Home was unveiled[21]


Personal assistants can greatly help users to effortlessly organize their activities or use online services as well as aid in information retrieval. They are developed to solve a complex task and in that way enlarge the capabilities of their users. In addition, intelligent personal assistants learn from interaction with their users and are able to offer a service that suits their users.[22] Intelligent personal assistants also benefit from their use of voice commands, as David Nahamoo from IBM argues that speech is the main human communication tool and is a very quick way to get the point.[5] Intelligent personal assistants could also provide various kinds of information ranging from weather and traffic situations and recipes to factual information and new headlines.[23] However, the amount of information, that each could provide, is widely variable.

Cortana running on Windows 10

There is currently an expanding market of smart devices, also called Internet of Things (IoT). Both types of personal assistants enable natural and fast interaction with smart devices.[5] Smart devices, which could be controlled with intelligent personal assistants, include lightbulbs, coffee machines, refrigerators, thermostats, and garage doors.[23] In addition, certain smart devices even include Alexa.[24][25]

IPAs were originally developed in the military environment.[13] They can, however, solve tasks in other areas such as a medical care,[26] shopping,[22] business, and transportation.[27]

An intelligent personal assistant can be used for learning a foreign language. The software that is suitable for this purpose is Google Now.[28] However, other software and devices could also be helpful for phrases or pronunciation.[29]

Several customer reviews have suggested that intelligent personal assistants could be really helpful for elderly and disabled people. This has not, however, been reflected by researchers or developers. Customers argue that intelligent personal assistants could call for help if an elderly person has an accident.[30] Intelligent personal assistants could make physically disabled people more independent, since they would help them to control their home environment by voice.[31] Voice control is also suitable for visually disabled people.[32] Judith Newman from The New York Times and the mother of an autistic child claims that Siri is a great companion for her communication-impaired son.[33] Nonetheless, studies and research on this phenomenon are needed in order to reach any conclusive claim about the benefit of intelligent personal assistants.

Ethical & Health Issues

The rise of intelligent personal assistants is linked with several ethical issues. The one most discussed is the privacy concern. In order to work properly, intelligent personal assistants have to collect a great deal of personal information about their users, including location, password, email, calendars, address books or preferences. Additionally, the task is not solved in the device, but all the data are processed in a remote data centre.[34] There is the possibility that at least some companies that have developed intelligent personal assistants store these data and use them in their commercial strategies. For instance, the answer that an assistant expresses after user's question could contain paid content,[35] or the assistant could prioritize the goods produced or shipped by the company that developed it.[36]

Although the listening function of a personal intelligent assistant could be switched off, this possibility is not always used. Consequently, it is possible that these assistants also collect data about the personal communication of their users.[37] This issue might be deepened with the introduction of intelligent personal assistants with display, as they could also send visual records. This issue is, however, to some extent present even in the current use of the internet. Robot ethics Ronald Arkin claims:

Amazon and Google have all sorts of data about our preferences. You don’t have to use their products. If you do, you’re saying OK, I’m willing to allow this potential violation of my privacy. No one is forcing this on anyone. It’s not mandated à la 1984.[37]

Another problem linked with this issue is data security. Even when the company has no intent to use personal data it has received, the data can be stolen and misused by a third party.[38]

An evening with Gatebox's personal assistant Azuma Hikari

When Apple acquired Siri, its capabilities were reduced due to Apple policy.[13] This problem is linked with nearly all intelligent personal assistants. They are as effective as the many apps they can used. Consequently, their efficiency is affected by the cooperation between their developers and the companies that own the apps.[39]

Certain intelligent personal assistant devices tend to express human-like features, which could adversely affect the population. This issue was pointed out especially with respect to the Gatebox device, which was developed in Japan. It was deemed that it might deepen Japan's birthrate crisis.[40] However, since the device has not yet been shipped, the impact on society is unknown. Additionally, an exaggerative attachment to intelligent personal assistants could badly affect the decision making process, as Nicholas Brazzi points out. Namely, he claims that the love for an intelligent personal assistant could cause user's avoid replacing it when it or the device is not working properly. This could be especially dangerous in the case of systems that are essential for health and life support.[41]

Another considerable issue among intelligent personal assistants is that of tech copycats; copying of technologies. It is currently quite widespread. One example of this behaviour could be the introduction of Google Now and Microsoft Cortana soon after the introduction of Apple Siri. In addition, the current rise of intelligent personal assistant devices was influenced by the introduction of Amazon Echo. Google Home device is already available, and Microsoft Home Hub or Apple HomeKit are estimated to appear soon. Copycats have been pointed out and criticised by David Pogue, who argues that they slow down technological innovations.[4]

Public & Media Impact and Presentation

Compute-based intelligent personal assistants were anticipated in sci-fi literature and films long before their introduction. The developers of Siri were aware of its precursors in culture and integrated in Siri certain humorous responses with regards to well-known intelligent personal assistants.[42][43]

There was hype around the introduction of Siri, but expectations might have been too high. Apple announced that users could talk to Siri as if it were a human,[44] but this was not always the case. Mark Gurman and Ian King from Bloomberg point out that it often misinterprets users' commands.[45] Walt Mossberg from The Verge argues:

But, in its current incarnation, Siri is too limited and unreliable to be an effective weapon for Apple in the coming AI wars. It seems stagnant. Apple didn’t become great by just following the data on what customers are doing today. It became great by delighting customers with feats they didn’t expect. The AI revolution will demand even more of that.[46]

The use of Siri in The Simpsons

Although there was not as much hype around the introduction of Amazon Echo as around the introduction of Siri, Amazon Echo and related products are now considered to be devices that change the way of life for of millions of people. Jessi Hempel from Backchannel argues that Amazon Echo is the first device that approximates intelligent personal assistants fro the mainstream population. She claims:

The Alexa-enabled Echo is a true unicorn, one of those rare products that arrives every few years and fundamentally changes the way we live. In 2017, we will start to see that change. After years of false starts, voice interface will finally creep into the mainstream as more people purchase voice-enabled speakers and other gadgets, and as the tech that powers voice starts to improve. By the following year, Gartner Inc. predicts that 30 percent of our interactions with technology will happen through conversations with smart machines.[47] The rising impact of these devices could be demonstrated by the bulk of new devices that was presented at CES 2017.[48]

The introduction of intelligent personal assistants was also mirrored in pop-culture. For instance, Siri co-stars on The Big Bang Theory[49] and was parodied in The Simpsons.[50]

Public Policy

Due to storage of personal data, the use of intelligent personal assistants is banned in certain companies, e.g., IBM.[51]

Related Technologies, Projects, or Scientific Research

There is a great number of devices that could be controlled by intelligent personal assistants, including switches, lightbulbs, TVs, various sensors, home appliances, locks, or robots. It is probable that the list will grow continually. However, not every personal assistant could be controlled every smart device. The applicability is influenced by the policy of each company.[52][53]


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