Shiela Pialago - July 17, 2021

AI Assistants: A Threat to Your Virtual Assistant Job?

Tonight, we have another very interesting topic that I’d like to share with you because this applies to us, VAs and Freelancers, and how it could shape our future and that it’s something that we need to prepare for or at least foresee the things that we can do so that when changes come around, you would have a backup plan with you and avoid losing a lot especially that we’re talking about careers in this podcast.

A little backstory though, I joined online conversations and forums and there was a response from a lady named Ivy, she’s a technical support freelancer, and her response really struck me particularly because I related it to it big-time.

Okay, this is what Ivy said:

“The challenge now is that virtual assistants are being replaced by programs and applications that do the functions like what we do. I have come across people who opt for paying for several apps and programs just to cut costs on virtual assistants.”

It reminded me of my Marketing mentor who introduced me to this social media automation tool that is quite costly but it ended up saving his Social Media VA about 80-90% of the timeframe of what I’d like to call now as traditional way of social media marketing. 

It has become traditional in my eyes because the tool or software itself has not only introduced scheduling and automation, it has now given me the option of evergreen recycling, which means, a post can be published as many times as you want with caption and image variations options.

When I learned about the tool, I was amazed and at the same time, wondered, wow, could this tool make the social media VA job obsolete in the future or could this change the job description of what social media VAs should do.

So that was my first thought, and then, I kind of dug a deeper hole this time when I ran across research and findings about what they call as “Intelligent Virtual Assistants” or what I’d prefer to use here as “Artificial Intelligence Assistants” or AI assistants — just so to avoid the confusion. 

By the way, I’ve looked it up. According to Dr Mark Nasila, FNB’s Chief Analytics Officer for Consumer Banking, automation and artificial intelligence are easily confused as similar, but they are fundamentally different. Automation “saves time and money spent on monotonous, voluminous tasks and gives employees an opportunity to apply themselves to more complex processes”, while Artificial intelligence deals with “technologies, systems or even processes that competently mimic how human beings make decisions, react to new information, speak, hear, as well as understand language”.

I quoted that social media automation tool just to give a connection of how programs and applications can take over and do the job itself.

Now before I proceed to tackling about AI assistants, I’d like us to reflect on these first like what does automation mean for Social Media VAs or if you are in any other niche, think of a software that has made your life “easier” and “faster” or more convenient than ever— now ask yourself: if this tool or software can do 90% of your job now, what do you have left in your skillset to offer to your current and potential clients in the future? What can you do to upskill and not be fully replaced by this tool or program tomorrow? 

Let me know your thoughts in the comments. 

Alright. You must have heard of the names, “Cortana, Robin, Lyra, or ELSA” or we can go to the more familiar ones like “Siri, Alexa, Google Assistant” — They are all Intelligent Virtual Assistants or for this case, AI Assistants. 

Investopedia simply defines Artificial intelligence (AI) as “the simulation of human intelligence in machines that are programmed to think like humans and mimic their actions.”

The term artificial intelligence is not news because it was coined in 1956, but AI has only become more popular today because of the increase in data volumes, advancements in algorithms and developments in computing power and storage.

As a lot of you may know, the AI market boomed especially during the pandemic. A global lockdown happened, everyone had to stay at home for months on end and that just drove us to provide these machines more information and data than ever.

AI virtual assistant technology like Alexa, Google Home, Siri, became so popular that investors and business owners pushed for its rapid innovation and development. 

In addition to that, in 2021, the increase in AI usage across businesses will create $2.9 trillion of business value and 6.2 billion hours of worker productivity. That is a lot of value to business owners and as for our case, our clients.

And the capabilities of these AI assistants have grown over the years from the mundane providing of facts and information, playing music/video, and sending text messages to complex tasks like giving recommendations based on the user’s profile, previous behaviour and setting up appointments, ordering goods, and making travel arrangements.

Back in 2004, a project aimed to use AI techniques to design and implement an advice-giving system for E-commerce, which was said to “support a move from the current catalogue-based customer services, and emulate in some way to the performance of a human seller”. Shoutout to the e-commerce VAs who are solely working on selling, because AI is creeping up on you, it’s trying to emulate more than half of what you do or even your core tasks in selling. 

It makes you wonder, if this project was in 2004, what have you noticed in the last 17 years that has changed when it comes to e-selling? If you have any thoughts on the changes and developments, do let me know. I’d love to hear about them.

Language teachers are not exempted either. In 2015, ELSA or English Language Speech Assistant was born and is currently “enabling 1.5 billion global English learners to language fluency”. 

As a former English as Second Language teacher, I am amazed by how AI Assistants could multifold or amplify the results of language learning and fluency. The data and figures itself are quite astonishing, although still contestable if we test the AI students vs personally-taught students in terms of comprehension and language application… but the figures are quite something to think about.

And that was since 2015, now because of COVID-19 in 2020, Kwame, a Bilingual AI Teaching Assistant was created to help 42 African countries to provide answers to students’ coding questions from SuaCode courses in English or French. Now, these AI Assistants have gone from bilingual to polyglot if you know what I mean.

How about the Chatbots, you might ask? Chatbots earlier in the decade only respond to linear questions. It has improved so much that researchers are now looking into its capabilities between virtual assistantship and virtual friendship and how a “friend chatbot” can improve and strengthen a consumer’s brand personality perception.

I am only giving you lads and ladies the very tip of the iceberg of what these AIs can do. But enough with the micro, because there’s just way too many of them to mention. Let’s look at the bigger picture.

Are AI Assistants a threat to the economy and to your virtual assistant job?

Prof. Bernd Stahl, the Director of the Centre for Computing and Social Responsibility from the De Montfort University in Leicester UK, published a book on Artificial Intelligence for a Better Future and he gave dichotomous or contrasting insights about it, he said:

“An initial set of issues that arise from living in a digital world is related to the economy. The most prominent among these is likely to concern employment/unemployment. The potential of AI-related technologies to create a new wave of automation and thereby replace jobs has long been recognised (according to a 1990 study by Collins).”

This is straightforward and self-explanatory but since AI is not news and this science fiction is rapidly becoming a science fact, it’s going to happen, right? Now Prof Stahl continued:

“It is feared that AI will negatively affect employment. The novelty in the perceived threat from AI, is that the jobs currently under apparent threat are better-paying ones: AI may increasingly imperil the income of middle-class professionals.”

If I may reflect on that, as of June 2021, a middle-class monthly income here in the Philippines ranges from P44,000 to P77,000 and one can easily earn that here or even go beyond that range because of Virtual Assistance and Freelancing. Again, this is a statement that can affect us big-time.

Going back, Prof Stahl continues that “in addition to that, losing employment is of course not only an economic problem; it also has social and psychological aspects“.

Where I’m from, mental health still does not cause a commotion around here because poverty is the main day-to-day struggle, what to eat for the next meal is the primary concern. But I think for those who have recently transferred to the digital world and even those who have been in the digital industry for quite some time now, we are all vulnerable to the risks of the psychological and social impacts of AI if we are not able to prepare ahead of time or work our way around it.

Now, he did share a light of hope when he cited AI Now Institute in 2017 saying that “the outcomes may be different than expected: jobs may not disappear but change instead and new jobs may be created…

So that is indeed a little sign of hope for us that Virtual Assistance may not disappear but may change its nature or be completely redefined.

In 2017, a policy brief talking about Artificial Intelligence and Its Adverse Impact on the Philippine Economy  argued that “AI does not necessarily eliminate human input” but actually “compliments human input.” That’s one positive way to look at it. Nevertheless, it recommends “the emergence of AI will introduce the much-needed stimulus of renewed growth”

As for us Virtual Assistants and Freelancers, this means that we need to keep learning new tools, softwares, and skills to keep up with the growing capacities of AI. 

One of the challenges that we may have to raise to the government though is to improve Internet connectivity or digital infrastructures that can support “data-intensive businesses” like ours — to be made more secure and competitively affordable.

It continued to explain that with the rise of AI Tech and Assistants, it is imperative for us to re-tool and focus on “taking advantage of the technology and building non-automable skills”. Non-automable skills–things that are not about to be automated.

Adam J. Gustein and John Sviokla (Harvard Business Review, 2018) enumerated the 7 skills that a robot doesn’t have and won’t have in the foreseeable future:

  1. Communication or the ability to communicate compellingly like writing a compelling story which they said will always be in high demand and hard to automate.

This would work very well with Content Writers, Social Media Content Writers, and the like.

  1. Content: “It is those with a combination of expertise and the ability to move new knowledge forward who will stay ahead of the robots.”

This is where I think Directors, Developers, and Designers who would push the limits of their strategies, techniques, and styles to elevate their content, will really make the cut to stay on top of the game with AI tech.

  1. Context: Extending automatic reasoning of AI systems is still considered highly complex; so, having a deeper type of contextual understanding shows that you have knowledge of a business or client or employer that is very hard for robots to deal with.

Whether you are in marketing, ecommerce, or technical industry, understanding your clients personally has a huge impact over what AIs can currently do. I’m not saying it’s not possible but while AI is hurriedly catching up, we can keep working on understanding our client’s business working style, business model, and ecosystem that varies from one client to another.

  1. Emotional competence: AI machines are still far behind from understanding the “emotional tenor” of a person, meeting or organization let alone the options that have  emotional consequences with them. 
  2. Teaching
  3. Connections
  4. An ethical compass or the capacity of ethics and moral judgement.
    And these are definitely words to live by, “The fact that the world will be increasingly controlled by machines lacking an ethical compass amplifies the importance of having people in our future workforce who possess strong moral values.”

On a positive note, I think AI would elevate our lives to convenience and comfort as it would save us time and increase productivity and efficiency. In the long run, it is ideally created to decrease human-to-work time and increase human-to-human quality time with family and friends when done and used properly.

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