What Is a Digital Assistant?

A digital assistant, also known as a predictive chatbot, is an advanced computer program that simulates a conversation with the people who use it, typically over the internet.

Digital assistants use advanced artificial intelligence (AI), natural language processing, natural language understanding, and machine learning to learn as they go and provide a personalized, conversational experience. Combining historical information such as purchase preferences, home ownership, location, family size, and so on, algorithms can create data models that identify patterns of behavior and then refine those patterns as data is added. By learning a user’s history, preferences, and other information, digital assistants can answer complex questions, provide recommendations, make predictions, and even initiate conversations.

What’s the Difference Between a Digital Assistant and a Chatbot?

Chatbots are computer programs that simulate and process written or spoken human conversation so that people can interact with digital devices as if they were communicating with a real person. If you speak into your phone to order your favorite coffee drink, you are interacting with a chatbot. You can also request a ride from a ridesharing service by using one of the service’s chatbots. These are relatively simple “conversations.”

It’s easy to confuse digital assistants with chatbots—and, in fact, a digital assistant is an advanced type of chatbot that can handle more complex interactions in a conversational way. A digital assistant, for example, can respond to a complex request such as, “Schedule a flight to Phoenix for me next Sunday using my usual seating preferences, and arrange transportation to and from the airport.” To respond to this request, the digital assistant will need to access multiple sources—a capacity that the ordinary chatbot does not possess.

Perhaps an easy way to understand the difference is to remember that while all digital assistants are chatbots, not all chatbots are digital assistants.

Use Oracle Digital Assistant to build your own chatbot to advance your business.

How Does a Digital Assistant Work?

Not all digital assistants have the same abilities. A digital assistant pulls data from multiple sources and puts it into context. Advanced natural language processing gives it the ability to process what you are saying or typing. Advanced natural language understanding (NLU) gives it the ability to parse what you say or type and then generate accurate answers. Advanced NLU can understand complex sentences and separate the various pieces within a multipart request or question and return an accurate answer.

The more advanced digital assistants are capable of processing multiple tasks and complex questions to converse with you in a way that is easy to understand. These digital assistants use AI and machine learning to understand and learn your preferences based on your past actions. They can use their understanding of you to make predictions of your behavior and make recommendations based on your history and preferences. In this way, working with a digital assistant becomes a personalized experience tailored to your needs.

What Can a Digital Assistant Do?

For consumers, digital assistants like Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana are able to answer many general questions and offer recommendations based on a user’s profile, past behavior, and other information. Get the directions you need while avoiding congested traffic, pick up that coffee you ordered, and check in to your hotel—all with the help of your digital assistant. If you are going to be out of town for a few days, your digital assistant can tell you the weather forecast at home and turn down the heat while you are away.

For businesses, digital assistants provide a single, convenient point of contact for contractors and customers. Digital assistants are most commonly used in customer contact centers to manage incoming communications. They’re also used for internal purposes, such as to onboard new employees.

For IT operations, chatbots are frequently used to enhance the service management experience by automating employee services and making them accessible to more people. With an intelligent chatbot, common tasks, such as resetting passwords, system status updates, outage alerts, ordering supplies, and knowledge management can be easily automated and made available around the clock.

The services provided vary depending on the types and quality of the digital assistant’s natural language capabilities, AI, and other technologies used—the more advanced the digital assistant, the more business functions it can perform. For example, the latest digital assistants can:

  • Automate responses for the most common IT service desk questions including informational and transactional requests.
  • Remind an employee to submit an expense report and help them do so.
  • Answer complex questions such as, “Where is the coffee shop closest to the convention center that is open until 8 p.m. and that has parking available?”
  • Connect with multiple back-end business systems (such as sales, marketing, and customer relations) to make targeted suggestions to customers and workers.
  • Transfer users as needed to expert staff. Some digital assistants can seamlessly manage transitions between chatbots, live agents, and back again.

Integrating Business Data

Employee self-service digital assistants are gaining in popularity. These new advanced apps save the business money, and employees like the convenience. Instead of having to track down the right forms, access multiple websites, and spend their time completing tedious manual processes, employees can use the digital assistant to easily update their profile, add that newborn family member to their insurance, check their vacation balance, and more. The digital assistant can unify information from systems across the company—such as human capital management (HCM), enterprise resource planning (ERP), and customer relationship management (CRM)—and create one messaging flow for its interaction with the employee. Combining CRM with marketing automation tools also improves the company’s ability to market to customers and improve the customer experience.

Learn more about what conversational AI can do for your business (PDF).

The Benefits of Today’s Digital Assistants

For individuals, digital assistants bring convenience—and a dose of fun—into homes, cars, and other locations. When used for certain purposes, such as to manage home heating and home security, they can also save people money and free them from tedious tasks.

Businesses are also finding many benefits to using digital assistants, especially to improve efficiency and provide better assistance to their employees and customers. By using digital assistants, a business can:

  • Offer more services. Businesses can provide more services to their employees and customers by using chatbots to handle the more routine help desk or customer service requests.
  • Save money. Digital assistants allow businesses to connect with customers and employees in a personal way without the time and expense of live representatives. By taking care of redundant tasks or shortening the time it takes to perform essential tasks, digital assistants free staff to perform more mission-critical work.
  • Provide better service. Customers and employees appreciate having natural conversations on convenient messaging apps as well as receiving fast and accurate responses to their questions.
  • Avoid mistakes. Digital assistants can anticipate upcoming events and issue reminders—for example, letting users know that they need to submit a form or that the deadline is coming up for a report.
  • Scale at will. By implementing a digital assistant, a business can provide humanlike, personalized, proactive service to millions of people at the same time—and scale up or down at will.
  • Learn as they go. Digital assistants gather real-time insights, which businesses can use to continually improve the user experience and learn about their customers and employees.

Ease of Use: Zero-Effort Access

One of the advantages of digital assistants is that users don’t have to download and install specialized apps just to access the assistant. Instead, the digital assistant can be made available through existing solutions such as

  • Popular messaging applications including Facebook Messenger, Microsoft Teams, Slack, and WeChat
  • IT helpdesk systems
  • Business web portals
  • Popular voice assistants like Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri

The Rapidly Approaching Future of Digital Assistants

Continuing advances in AI, NLP, and machine learning mean that the digital assistants of the future will become even “smarter”—providing more natural conversations, answering more complex questions, and offering more insightful recommendations. When AI is combined with up and coming 5G technology, recommendations and predictions will come faster and digital assistants will likely incorporate advanced features such as high-definition video conferencing.

It’s likely that eventually many people will have a digital assistant they can interact with at home, work, or wherever they go, making us more efficient and giving us time back in our days. Digital assistants can free us to be more creative and innovative, to spend more time on strategic ideas and complex activities, and less time on mundane, redundant tasks that are better handled by the assistants we will carry in our pockets.

Next-Generation Digital Assistants

Digital assistants are a part of most people’s everyday lives due to the proliferation of smartphones. Many people interact with Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa every day. The use of chatbots and digital assistants is also growing in the workplace. These user interfaces need to be more complex to meet the needs of work environments, but the technology is now available. Discover three ways the next generation of digital assistants will change business