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Five ways voice assistants are going to change the office

Digital assistants will fill roles that complement the work of human employees, improving productivity and efficiency.

It's increasingly clear that voice is the next major interface in computing, in some cases replacing the touch-based platforms of the smartphone era. Amazon's Alexa, Google Assistant, Apple's Siri, and Samsung's Bixby are leading the voice charge by providing contextual data and performing tasks on behalf of users.

As voice-based virtual assistants continue move into a broad swath of form factors -- including smartphones, smart speakers, and automobiles -- their impact on the general public will grow as well. As consumer use cases continue to accumulate, these assistants are also making their way further into the office, creating new opportunities for improving business productivity and efficiency.

SEE: IT leader's guide to the future of artificial intelligence (Tech Pro Research)

While voice assistants are known for their ability to start a music playlist, for example, they also have great potential in the workplace. Here are five ways that digital voice assistants will change the office.

1. Boosting productivity

Voice assistants may seem limited in their capabilities now, but they will eventually evolve to operate as virtual colleagues. In this role, they will complement the work of their human counterparts and take over repetitive tasks, freeing up employees to focus on higher-level projects.

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In other words, Siri and her peers represent a bigger movement than just performing tasks with a voice command. These assistants represent the future of human-computer interaction (HCI), according to Raul Castañon-Martinez, senior analyst at 451 Research.

"They will change how we interact with computers, but they are part of a bigger picture that includes text/keyboard input, touch screens, computer vision and gesture which vendors like Amazon, Google and Samsung are already incorporating," Castañon-Martinez said. "In other words, in the short term we will have voice-enabled assistants, but it won't be long before they transition into multi-modal assistants."

2. Automating meetings

One of the big value propositions of virtual assistants is their ability to automate and streamline mundane processes in the workplace. One of the biggest hassles in the corporate world is starting a meeting, especially when a video conference is involved.

However, products like Amazon's Alexa for Business can simplify the meeting process, according to Forrester Research vice president and principal analyst J.P. Gownder.

"Enter the conference room, say, 'Alexa, start the meeting,' and that's it," Gownder said. "No fumbling around for bridge numbers and pass codes (the management tool knows what meeting should start). This could save minutes off the beginning of every meeting."

Additionally, smart lighting could dim and curtains could automatically close when a meeting starts if the tools are properly integrated.

3. Improved communications

Voice assistants rely on a technology called natural language processing (NLP), which uses artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning to parse a spoken phrase and translate it into written text. This capability -- especially as it evolves -- will help business professionals communicate and collaborate more effectively.

One example, according to Castañon-Martinez, would be this technology enabling integration with a tool like Skype for Business or Microsoft Teams. By paying attention to what's said in the meeting, the assistant can take notes for the user or identify key points in the conversations that need to be followed up on.

"When it comes to worker productivity, the use of NLP represents a significant improvement in search capabilities, which can help employees identify and retrieve the right information from different sources," Castañon-Martinez said.

4. Data surfacing

Another voice assistant capability that will greatly improve the productivity of their human colleagues is their ability to grok large amounts of data and find the most relevant information for a given project or meeting.

"Imagine having an agent that listens in to the meeting, then participates as needed, surfacing data and insights relevant to the conversation," Gownder said. "Several agents, like Voicera's Eva, are pursuing this space."

Lowering the barrier to finding the right information will make data-driven decision-making easier to pursue, which could help companies make more prudent choices in the market.

5. Accessibility

For employees who may have difficulty with certain technologies, voice assistants could help them accomplish their daily tasks more easily, or even open them up to new tasks and roles that may have been previously not possible in their current environment.

"Speech-enabled assistants provide the flexibility to choose the best fit for human-computer interactions and open up many possibilities for use cases and applications where data entry remains a challenge," Castañon-Martinez said. "This can be either because the end user is not able to use a keyboard (as in the case of health care practitioners, field maintenance technicians or factory workers) or because the device's interface is not ideally suited for typing, as in the case of wearable devices (smart watch, smart glasses)."

While voice assistants are in the market today, they have a long way to go before they reach their full potential.

"We can very much expect that forward-looking companies will start to employ more of these technologies in 2018, but they certainly won't be commonplace right away," Gownder said.

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