What are Virtual Assistants?

As voice recognition and gesture-based technologies advance and more recently, converge, we are quickly moving away from the notion of interacting with our devices via a pointer and keyboard. Virtual assistants are a credible extension of work being done with natural user interfaces (NUIs), and the first examples are already in the marketplace. The concept builds on developments in interfaces across the spectrum of engineering, computer science, and biometrics. The Apple iPhone’s Siri and Android's Jellybean are recent mobile-based examples, and allow users to control all the functions of the phone, participate in lifelike conversations with the virtual assistant, and more. A new class of smart televisions are among the first devices to make comprehensive use of the idea. While crude versions of virtual assistants have been around for some time, we have yet to achieve the level of interactivity seen in Apple's classic video, Knowledge Navigator. Virtual assistants of that caliber and their applications for learning are clearly in the long-term horizon, but the potential of the technology to add substance to informal modes of learning is compelling.

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(1) How might this technology be relevant to the educational sector you know best?

  • - martin.claesson martin.claesson Nov 20, 2016 Digital assistants are still rather limited but the potential is huge. When interacting with an assistand the interface is similiar to when you interact with your friends and colleagues. This will decrease the need to learn how to make judgements when searching the web for example, something that has hindered many people from fully accessing the power of data. This is both about finding relevant information easier and faster, as well as interacting with it in a natural way suited for humans.
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(2) What themes are missing from the above description that you think are important?

  • How is this different from AI/machine learning? Is this description mainly about the voice/multimedia interfaces, or is there more that distinguish this description? - ingrid.melve ingrid.melve Nov 7, 2016
  • - martin.claesson martin.claesson Nov 20, 2016 I think we need to increase our understanding of the impact interfaces have for technology use. The iPhone changed everything becuase of it's touch screen that made all the functions and software (apps) available for everyone. But accessing data is still difficult for many people, it takes knowledge and skill to effectively use search engines and databases. Even this wiki is far from a natural use of knowledge, input and feedback. Virtual assistants can potentially help change all that and make it easier for us to interact with the large amout of data that is stored on servers around the world.
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(3) What do you see as the potential impact of this technology on teaching, learning, or creative inquiry?

  • - martin.claesson martin.claesson Nov 20, 2016 I recently tried Google assistant and it correctly could identify different kinds of food that I had taken pictures of myself. These pictures had not been indexed by Google (from my knowledge) but their algorithms managed to tag them with what kind of food it was. So in the future anything you can take a picture of these assistants, through big data and machine learning, can help you explore and answer questions about in a way that is accessible to anyone. There won't be a need to have a lot of pre-existing knowledge of a topic or of computers to (re)produce information that can create the impression of being based on thorough research and understanding. Assessing if students have the desired knowledge will probably become a lot harder and students might be less interested in investing time in certain kinds of learning. On the other hand having information more readily available and accessible could free up time that would otherwise go to less productive search and put on emphasis on analysis and solution of problems. So for us who have based some of our professional capacity on understanding how computers function and interacting with them this development will remove that advantage.
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(4) Do you have or know of a project working in this area?

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