Siri, released more than seven years ago, was the introduction to voice-controlled virtual assistants for most people. In the last few years, virtual assistants have proliferated greatly, with Amazon's Alexa, Google's Assistant, Microsoft's Cortana and, most recently, Samsung's Bixby all offering a spin on an AI assistant ready to help you with just a word.
What started as devices that took simple voice commands have transformed into full automation and work tools that are equally valuable in the workplace as at home. Whether it's stand-alone hardware, such as the Amazon Echo or Google Home, or the assistant built into existing laptops, tablets or smartphones, an office can have a virtual assistant available anywhere and anytime.
There are differences in the approach each company takes; however, the primary functionality is similar across platforms. While the path to achieving them may vary, you can get most of the same tasks done regardless of which option you choose. [Read related article: AI Comes to Work: How Artificial Intelligence Will Transform Business]
Here are some of the best uses for an AI assistant to make your office more productive regardless of which platform you favor.
Fast facts and calculations
Smartphone users have become accustomed to asking their devices a quick question, and this can easily carry over into the office with the ability to resolve an issue instantly during a meeting or without distracting you from the task at hand. It could be as simple as finding an address or carrying out a bit of math that you need to be sure is spot-on, which are well within the reach of any of the virtual assistants out there.
For those looking for more than answers to general knowledge questions, many of the assistants allow you to tap into your office data directly or through a third-party skill, which could enable you to ask more specific questions regarding shipments or sales volume, for example.
Whether you regularly have visitors at your office or simply need to get a ride home for yourself, integrations with ride services such as Lyft and Uber make this task a breeze. You can request a pickup and receive updates on the progress of the driver so you don't waste a moment of valuable work or meeting time waiting for a ride.
You wouldn't want to write up a full report or memo using the dictation built into any of these virtual assistants, but when you need to get a sentence or two down to make sure an idea doesn't get away from you, this is an excellent solution. Any of the virtual assistants will handle this task with ease, but this is certainly a case where deploying stand-alone hardware in a few places in your office could make all the difference, as it completely removes friction from the process. You are just a command word away from your note being taken down and saved digitally, regardless of when and where inspiration strikes.
While Amazon's Echo is unsurprisingly the clear leader for direct shopping among the virtual assistants, Google Assistant is also capable of placing orders through a number of retail partners. Being able to place an order instantly when you notice something is running low, without all the red tape typically associated with getting office supplies, is a boon for efficiency and avoids time wasted filling out a request or waiting for a crucial supply to be filled.
Even if direct ordering isn't feasible in your office, or you use one of the virtual assistants that doesn't support direct ordering, all of these services support a shared shopping list for the office. As long as that is fulfilled on a recurring basis, it offers similar efficiency.
Another cumbersome task that can often just slip through the cracks, group calendaring in particular can improve considerably by relying on a virtual assistant. Cortana has an edge here for companies that rely on Microsoft Office, with some advanced functionality thanks to its deeper integration, but for basic scheduling, any of the virtual assistants will handle it and get that next meeting on the books in a moment.
Hopefully you are already using a digital solution for your to-do list, but ensuring that those to-do items don't end up stranded on a Post-it or sheet of paper before they make it over to your digital solution is crucial. A virtual assistant can be a lifesaver there. Like so many functions of the virtual assistant, it may seem like a small thing, but the ability to simply add a new item to your to-do list by speaking a command rather than having to open an app and type it out removes any friction from the process, saving you time and virtually eliminating the chance that anything goes forgotten.
This is one area that varies pretty widely between the various virtual assistants, but each one has a way of carrying out tasks or a series of tasks for you based on simple voice commands. While the capabilities and exact methods differ, they all have been made simple enough that anyone can put together fairly complex automations without any programming experience. For the Echo and Google Assistant, the key to automation is the IFTTT service; with Cortana, you need to look to Microsoft's own Flow service; and with Apple's Siri, the Workflow app is extremely powerful and can be invoked using Apple's native Reminders feature.
The extent of what you can do with automation is virtually endless. Once properly set up, any of the automation services could be used to handle all the rest of the tasks we've covered in this article. If the virtual assistant you choose doesn't support a given service natively, you should turn to automation and, more than likely, you will find a way to get the job done.