Intelligent Personal Assistants

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Intelligent Personal Assistants

by James G. Barr

Docid: 00021054

Publication Date: 2001

Report Type: TUTORIAL


An intelligent personal assistant (IPA) – also known as a virtual
assistant, smart
personal assistant, or a host of other names – is a software program that
helps people complete basic tasks. Typically, an IPA will answer
questions and perform actions based on voice commands and location
awareness. Leading IPAs include Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, Google’s
Assistant, and Microsoft’s Cortana. Popular among consumers, IPAs are penetrating the enterprise space. Some enterprise experts are encouraged
by this development; others are not.

Report Contents:

Executive Summary

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An intelligent personal assistant (IPA) – also known as a smart
personal assistant, intelligent virtual assistant, virtual digital
assistant, or simply virtual assistant – is a software program that
helps people complete basic tasks.

Smart Machines Tutorial
Artificial Intelligence Tutorial

Typically, an IPA will answer questions and perform actions based on
voice commands and location awareness.

Most Popular IPAs

Today’s most popular IPAs are:

  • Amazon’s Alexa
  • Apple’s Siri
  • Google’s Assistant
  • Microsoft’s Cortana1

According to, the 2019 IPA "installed base" is:

  • Amazon Alexa devices – 100+ million
  • Apple Siri devices – 500+ million
  • Google Assistant devices – 1+ billion
  • Microsoft Cortana devices – 400+ million2

The Post-App World

"In the not-too-distant future, users will no longer have to contend with
multiple apps; instead they will literally talk to digital personal assistants
such as Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa or Google Assistant,” says Mark
O’Neill, research director at Gartner.3 Responding instantly to user requests, which include searching, purchasing,
controlling connected devices, and "facilitating professional tasks and
interactions," analyst Joanna Goodman sees IPAs ushering in an era of "conversational commerce," offering:

  • Instant consumer gratification
  • Instant revenue for businesses

As employed by enterprises, IPAs will provide instant responses to business queries,
thus improving productivity and job

In terms of overall enterprise adoption, two sectors – banking/financial
services and automotive – are expected to lead IPA development and deployment.

Prominent IPAs

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The consumer sector is seeing a rapid proliferation of IPAs. Applications and
devices from the big four producers – Amazon, Apple, Google, and Microsoft –
have taken center stage with prominent products like those listed above.

Originally installed on smartphones and tablets, newer "smart speaker"
IPAs, like Amazon’s Echo and Google’s Home, are gaining
traction in the home, especially multi-user family environments.

As for functionality, there is significant overlap between the
major providers. Amazon’s Echo (Figure 1) is broadly
representative of the today’s typical IPA. Like its competitors, Amazon’s Echo can:

  • Answer questions
  • Report news, weather, sports, and traffic
  • Provide information on local businesses
  • Control lights, switches, and thermostats operating in conjunction with
    compatible smart home devices

Echo can even read audio books or play music from a streaming service.

Figure 1. Amazon Echo (3rd Gen) Smart Speaker

Figure 1. Amazon Echo (3rd Gen) Smart Speaker

Source: Amazon

IPA Performance Comparison

In 2018, digital marketing firm Stone Temple rated the "smarts" of the major IPAs, testing 4,942 queries on five different devices: Alexa, Cortana Invoke,
Google Assistant on Google Home, Google Assistant on a smartphone, and Siri.

The tests revealed that:

  1. "Google Assistant [answered] the most questions and [had] the highest
    percentage answered fully and correctly.
  2. "Cortana [had] the second highest percentage of questions answered fully
    and correctly.
  3. "Alexa … made the biggest year-over-year gains, answering 2.7
    times more questions than in [the previous] year’s study.
  4. "Every competing personal assistant made significant progress in closing
    the gap with Google."5

In 2019, the study was updated, this time testing 4,999 queries on seven
different devices: Alexa, Echo Show, Cortana, Google Assistant on Google Home, Google Assistant on Google Home Hub, Google Assistant on a smartphone, and Siri.

Reflecting the evolving technology and brand capabilities:

  1. "Cortana now holds the lead in attempting to answer the most questions.
  2. "Google Assistant (on a Smartphone) remains the leader in answering
    questions fully and correctly.
  3. "Alexa continues to grow in the number of
    questions it attempts to answer and saw only a small drop in accuracy."6

IPA Issues

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Like most
technologies, IPAs exhibit certain characteristics that limit their utility and
may cause concern among current and prospective users.

Personal Privacy

IPAs are always in listening mode. As analyst
Deborah Matthews Phillips warns, this
always-on aspect is potentially problematic, particular as personal information
may be intercepted and recorded on the host servers.7

Personal Discomfort

Closely related to the privacy issue. a study by Creative Strategies
finds that many users are reticent to address an IPA unless they’re alone. Fifty-one (51) percent of consumers surveyed use an IPA in their car, but only
six percent
in public, and only 1.3 percent at work. (The auto usage figure is high
because IPAs enable the hands-free operation of smartphones.)

Those who have never used an IPA are uncomfortable with the concept of
talking to their technology – particularly in public. This feeling would be
amplified in an enterprise atmosphere where sensitive information could be
inadvertently overheard.8

Information Security

David Emm,
principal security researcher at

Kaspersky Lab,
if Amazon doesn’t do anything questionable with your Echo interactions, it does
store them in the cloud, which isn’t totally hacker-proof."9 To be safe, analyst Gavin Kenny reminds IPA
users, both individual and enterprise, to practice proper information security.
"We need to remember that IPAs are still only
computers. We should not forget to ensure basic cybersecurity protection
measures are in place and regularly checked – otherwise our electronic friend
might also be the traitor in our midst."10

Continuous Dialogue

Jennifer Singh of Thomson Reuters’ applied innovation
group believes IPAs are of limited usefulness because they are not able (at
least now) to effectively engage in continuous dialogue or the type of
conversation two people would have.11

Job Loss

Dave Cox, head of innovation at M&C Saatchi, believes that "A lot of our lives will be
managed by [IPAs] because businesses will realize infinite economies of scale. Gradually, bots will take over straightforward tasks and,
when we look back in
ten years’ time, we will realize that half the stuff we’ve delegated to machines
used to be done by people."12

Although IPAs will enhance enterprise
productivity, a cost will be borne by workers who lose their jobs to
technological progress. This is a major issue in today’s economy when politicians are
anxiously seeking methods to create employment opportunities, not destroy them.

Stalled Progress

Potentially curbing people’s enthusiasm, analyst Eric Enge cautions that "Overall,
[IPA] progress has stalled to a certain degree. We’re no longer
seeing major leaps in progress by any of the players. This may indicate that
the types of algorithms currently in use have reached their limits. The next
significant leap forward will likely require a new approach.13

IPAs in the Enterprise

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Initially conceived and crafted for consumers, IPAs, similar to their smartphone and
tablet predecessors, are
penetrating the enterprise space – a natural extension of the bring your own
device (BYOD) phenomenon. Some enterprise experts are encouraged; others
are not.

The Skeptics

As reported by Matt Kapco, Jan Dawson, chief analyst and founder of Jackdaw
Research, believes IPA applications may exist but not without complications. "Enterprise use for this kind of thing is a lot tougher, because you’re mostly talking about people working in busy environments, close
to other people, which really isn’t well-suited to voice products. That’s
not to say that the Google Assistant won’t make its way into the enterprise
environment in other ways, but it probably won’t be through voice."14

According to
Byron Galbraith, cofounder and chief data scientist at
Talla, natural speech tools like IPAs are overrated. "If I’m seated at a desk, I can almost certainly
achieve the tasks I want faster within a graphical user interface or rich visual
interface than through some limited set of voice commands." While
Galbraith acknowledges that IPAs could be useful in hands-free scenarios, as
might exist in factories or warehouses, even then ambient noise could limit IPA

The Proponents

IPA makers are exposing their applications and devices to the enterprise
market through integration and the development of enterprise-ready tools.

  • Microsoft added its Cortana IPA to the Windows 10 operating system.
  • Siri is available on Apple Macs.16
  • Google launched Springboard (now called Cloud Search), its IPA for enterprise customers.17

Four Enterprise Use Cases

Analyst Natalie Severt sees four ways for enterprise officials to utilize
IPAs to improve business processes.

Use Case 1 – Use IPA Apps to Automate Workflows
and Optimize Business Processes.

As an incentive, a 2017 McKinsey report discovered that 60 percent of all
occupations feature at least 30 percent automatable activities. Start with Sales
& Marketing, Human Resources, and Customer Service.

Use Case 2 – Use IPAs or Chatbots to Streamline
Customer Service on Your Website.

IPAs and chatbots can respond to customers 24X7 and, according to Gartner,
increase customer satisfaction.

Use Case 3 – Integrate Your Product or Service with Existing IPA Software.
Many IPAs like Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri offer API integration enabling
enterprises to "piggyback on their infrastructure."

Use Case 4 – Build an IPA or Chatbot Into Your
Product or Service.
It may be a
difficult chore. Before you proceed, ask:

  • "Can I solve my problem with an out-of-the-box solution?
  • "Could I use a platform like Dialogflow to create my AI personal
  • "Would it benefit me to leverage an existing platform?"18

Multitasking May Be the "Killer App"

Some business-oriented users are promoting IPAs in the workplace because they can use
their smartphones and other devices to multitask. According to an Amazon
spokesperson, "Voice enables unbelievably
simple interactions with technology and customers love the convenience of being
able to listen to music using only their voice, setting alarms and asking for
information when their hands are busy, listening to the news in the morning as
they get ready for work, and so much more."19

IPAs As Life Savers

As part of an overall autonomous vehicle initiative, automotive manufacturers
like BMW and Mercedes Benz are incorporating IPAs into their cars, providing
both information and safety.

Figure 2. BMW Intelligent Personal Assistant

Figure 2. BMW Intelligent Personal Assistant

Source: BMW

According to BMW, for example, the BMW Intelligent Personal Assistant
(Figure 2) can help drivers combat tiredness. "Simply say ‘Hey BMW, I’m
tired!’ and your vehicle will launch the reinvigoration program, which
is designed to combat fatigue via temperature adjustment, lighting
effects and music. In fact, after a few hours of uninterrupted driving,
a BMW tells you to take a break. If you need a bed, the navigation
system, supported by the BMW Concierge Service, will guide you to the
nearest hotel."20

Future Applications

According to analyst Stephen Moramarco, future IPA
workplace applications might include:

  • "Talent
    – [IPAs will] serve as talent
    [recruiters], searching millions of resumes as well as other databases such
    as LinkedIn and finding the most qualified people.
  • "Teacher/Coach
    – IPAs will analyze work processes and help employees become better at their
  • "Research
    – Research IPAs will be able to
    handle many different research requests and synthesize the information for
    human digestion.
  • "Ethics/Compliance
    – IPAs [will] be used as a tool to
    prevent intentional or unintentional violations of law. IPAs could be
    programmed to report unethical or illegal behavior.
  • "Marketing
    Materials Generator
    – [IPAs] will help pull
    together relevant stats as well as other company information and put it
    together in any format you like, such as Powerpoint, PDF or even video.
  • "Speech Writer
    – Public presentations will be easier when [IPAs] take your own words and
    craft them into a speech of any length."21


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"The computer interface envisioned in Star Trek is about to become a

– Bart Perkins, managing partner, Leverage Partners,

Enterprises Must Become IPA Friendly

IPAs promise a disruptive effect on company-customer communications,
potentially replacing the enterprise website as a chief information source. As analyst Tom
Anthony reminds us, in the pre-Internet period (circa 1990), "The
phone was [the primary] interface to your business, and your phone line and
receptionist were your "API" – the way people interacted with your business. As the Internet matured … your website empowered users to do lots of [the] same
things that they previously did via the phone. Your website became the
new "API" for your business."

Increasingly, "IPA apps such as [Siri and
Cortana] and … appliances such as [Home and Echo will] have
profound [impact] on the way people search, the types of [searches] they do, and
the way they consume and act upon the results of those searches."

enterprise planners must prepare to deliver information – particularly consumer
information – in a manner conducive to an IPA-powered search, or as Anthony

"If your long-term marketing/business plan doesn’t account for IPAs, you may
be in the same boat as those people who said they didn’t need a website in the
early 2000s."23

Expect More IPAs in the Enterprise

Similar to the smartphone invasion, in addition to supporting IPAs,
enterprise planners should be prepared to host IPAs in the workplace. As analyst
Steven Lerner explains: "As more employees are using [IPAs] in their personal
lives, the technology will be more prominent in work.

"Popular consumer-based [IPAs] (such as Amazon Alexa, Microsoft Cortana, and
Apple’s Siri) are pivoting their marketing efforts to businesses. In fact,
Amazon Alexa launched an enterprise-friendly service called Alexa for Business
in 2017. Gartner says that the vendor landscape for the service is transforming,
with over 1,000 service providers worldwide.

"By automating mundane tasks in the workplace [through IPAs], enterprises
will experience a host of benefits. This technology improves productivity and
engagement throughout an organization. Employees are free to complete more
critical responsibilities while the [IPAs] handle routine tasks."24


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About the Author

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James G. Barr is a leading business continuity analyst and

business writer with more than 30 years’ IT experience. A member of

"Who’s Who in Finance and Industry," Mr. Barr has designed,

developed, and deployed business continuity plans for a number of Fortune

500 firms. He is the author of several books, including How to

Succeed in Business BY Really Trying, a member of Faulkner’s Advisory

Panel, and a senior editor for Faulkner’s Security Management

Practices. Mr. Barr can be reached via e-mail at

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