Smartphone as Right Hand Man: Can New Virtual Assistants Replace the Real Thing?

Smartphone as Right Hand Man: Can New Virtual Assistants Replace the Real Thing?by Erin McDermott.

Ryan Frankel likes to run, sometimes even competing in triathlons. Like many entrepreneurs, he gets some good ideas when he has time to think, especially when he’s out pounding the pavement.

So when the MBA candidate brought along his iPhone 4S on a training run and tapped his Siri virtual assistant to take a message to remind himself of a thought to pursue, he hoped the much-touted Apple technology would take copious notes.

When he later listened to the recording, however, he found nothing but jibberish.

“It seems to never work right with background noise or wind, but it’s OK when it’s quiet and you’re slow in enunciating,” says Frankel, a second-year student in the Venture Initiation Program at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business in Philadelphia. “I’d never rely on it for anything serious, or do so sparingly. It just isn’t there.”

PQ_VirtualAsst.jpgNote to self: Popular new virtual assistants may not be entirely ready for prime time when it comes to the needs of an entrepreneur or small-business owner. While the ability to handle some small time-consuming tasks, such as search, managing a calendar, and text messaging, can be of value to anyone on the go, for those running the complexities of a modern business, there are questions of reliability.

When Apple’s Siri debuted in October 2011 on the new iPhone 4S, many hoped it would revolutionize the way users utilized their smartphones. But since then, many have found that even the most advanced virtual assistant can’t comprehend context the way a human being might. So far, this modern contest of man vs. machine shouldn’t have actual human assistants losing much sleep.

Frankel said his frustration with his device’s inability to provide crucial information pushed him to found, a crowd-sourced translation service that lets actual humans answer questions in Mandarin, Spanish, and Hindi. He got the idea after contracting food poisoning in China—and being unable to use a personal technology device to express the important notion that he needed an antibiotic. “At that point, I’d have given my left arm for someone to communicate on my behalf,” he said.

OK, so virtual assistants have their notable limits, but they are able to adapt. The more you use them, the more they learn, even from mistakes.

What does work well?

Siri: Let your new “friend” get to know you better, says Olga Mizrahi, a management and marketing expert, whose blog, Chunk of Change, touts smart new efficiencies from technology. She uses Siri to add expenses to her roster verbally and send text messages when she’s driving.

The more Siri knows about the people in your life, the easier it will be to contact and interact with them, Mizrahi says. Start by going to Settings> General> Siri > My Info and fill in your own contact information through your address book thoroughly. Then introduce Siri to your favorite people:

she says there are two easy ways to add a relationship:

1. Go into your own contact listing. Click “Edit.” Click on the name of a relationship (e.g. “ mother”), which appears underneath your address. Either choose one of the given labels or click “Add Custom Label” and use the arrow to choose a name from your contacts.

2. Go into someone else’s contact information. Click “Edit.” Click “add field” at the bottom of the screen. Choose “Phonetic First Name.” Either type in the name you want to use, or click on the microphone to have Siri record it.

(You can also try using Siri to check your bank balances—follow blogger Ryan Spahn’s instructions here.)

Vlingo: BlackBerry users can get its free SafeReader app, which can read your text messages and emails aloud, a hands-free aid for drivers with an itch to check their messages.

Evi: (For iPhone and Android). While this True Knowledge product isn’t able to send emails or text messages on voice command, its search answers get points for brevity: They are to the point and not just forwarded to a search engine.

Plus: watch this market space for Google’s Assistant, a new personal virtual assistant that’s reportedly coming later this year and is said to be focused on “accomplishing real-life goals,” not just churning out search results.

Dwight Carey, who teaches advanced entrepreneurship at Temple University’s Fox School of Business, says the technology could be useful to watch certain benchmarks. Work on getting your virtual assistant to monitor important numbers, such as a commodity price or how inventory levels compare with sales—and raise a flag for you if your set threshold is crossed, Carey says.

“The future is bright for technologies and services that make better use of people’s time, since we are becoming increasing time-constrained and more comfortable with mobile devices,” says Mizrahi, who’s based in Long Beach, Calif. “Small changes can make big differences over time, such as saving five or 10 minutes here and there throughout the day using a digital VA on a smart device.”

So for now, maybe it’s wise to just focus on the little advances these devices offer.

Perhaps Samir Malik has the right idea. As an MBA candidate at Wharton and a founder of 1DocWay, a HIPAA-compliant videochat service that links doctors with patients, Malik finds the most useful feature of his voice-activated Siri comes in the winter.

“When it’s cold, I use Siri a lot,” said Malik. “I don’t have to take my gloves off to do a search. I love that!”

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