Virtual Assistants - A Friend Indeed Or Not?

Harsh Bajpai, Policy Analyst, DialogueA Bachelor in Business Administration and Law from Symbiosis International University and a Master in International and Comparative Law from George Washington University, Harsh's areas of Interest include National Security, Traditional Knowledge and Countering Violent Extremism

Consumer: Siri, Buy me a Motorola G7 phone from Amazon.
Siri: Sorry, but you don't have this much amount of money in your bank account, would you prefer the Xiaomi phone at a lesser price?
Consumer: Okay Siri, buy me that phone

Could this be our future? Virtual Assistants or as we know it in the form of Alexa, Siri, etc. have been into our lives for quite some time now. From shopping to driving cars, they are helping us in every aspect of our lives. But have we ever thought about what the future beholds for us in respect of these virtual assistants. They might not have fully developed till now, but step-by-step they are reaching to a level where the choices we make will be based on the advice of the virtual assistants.

Consumer Adoption of the Virtual Assistants
Consumer adoption of these virtual assistants is expected to reach at 1.83 Billion by 2025. In 2018, around 100 Million smart speakers were installed in homes around the world which suggests the growing popularity of these gadgets. But in the same year, they have upgraded their system with enabling Alexa to predict human behavior or conversation with Google Assistant without saying the wake word. These technological advancements are transforming the current environment into ambient computing which suggests that computers are all around us and can sense or respond to our needs.

Also, the preference of brands is now dependent on which brand provides more personal relationship to the consumer. The problem begins here. With companies wanting to increase sales and giving their brands a boost, simultaneously they will also be collecting as much data as they can to know the customer better. It has been previously reported that Google Assistant continues listening to the conversations even though it has been turned off. This could have huge implications on the privacy of people who use these assistants.

Making Life Easier?
Virtual assistant's sole purpose is to
make the life of an individual easy. Rather than using a keyboard for accessing information or any other work, use voice command to get the desired work. The long term vision for virtual assistants is to bridge the gap between the consumer and knowledge available on the Internet while eliminating the need to type or read anything. They have already been used in various places like cars, e-commerce, healthcare, and telecommunications. Voice Commerce is now being used as a preferred choice for shopping with 24 percent of the people said that they would prefer shopping via virtual assistant rather than a website. This is going to increase to 40 percent three years from now. The use of a virtual assistant is not limited to only one or two sectors. The continuous development in these devices will make sure that it becomes a routine for our lives to use it for our day-to-day work.

Consumer adoption of these virtual assistants is expected to reach at 1.83 Billion by 2025

But these continuous additions to the feature of virtual assistant in order to make it more interactive with the consumer are critical. We don't know the extent to which the companies will evolve this technology and to what extent they will use it. At some point, the government has to regulate it so that it does not encroach into the fundamental rights of the citizens.

A person found out that iPad in the living room would unlock the front door for anyone who stood outside and asked Siri to let him in. Another instance was where Alexa ordered a dollhouse after hearing its name on TV. Keeping in mind this instance, are we ready for these smart technologies? Though the companies claim that they are trying to improve these technologies but we are not ready for it yet. For example, the use of virtual assistants in financial services, our banks do not have the network and infrastructure surrounding the use of these assistants. Companies are developing assistants per consumer behavior because of the competition in the market. But they have failed to take into account the implications it will have on the domestic infra-structure.

The major concern for the people using this device is surveillance. As writer Adam Clark Estes says: "By buying a smart speaker, you're effectively paying money to let a huge tech company surveil you." A reported case wherein Amazon was asked by the court to hand over the data recorded by Alexa in a murder case gives a hint that the device does record the data even if it is switched off. Though the companies have been denying that the device does not record anything until they are commanded but in-stances mentioned above suggest otherwise.

Future Ahead
One thing that is definite is that virtual assistants are here to stay. As per a survey conducted by IF-TTT, 60 percent of people said that they use the assistants more than four times a day and around 29 percent said that they use it more than seven times a day. These data imply that virtual assistants are used frequently by people. In the coming days, this use will become more frequent and rather than only showing maps and reminding calendar dates, these assistants will be used frequently in online trans-actions, financial services and with driving also. But the question still remains how will it be regulated? Western countries have been trying to develop a system for attributing liabilities for malfunction but they are nowhere with the pace with which these devices are evolving. Companies, in order to sell their product, are collecting data and using it to sell ads to the customers. But are we sure that this data is not being used for some other purpose?