How is a virtual assistant different from a chatbot?

One of the hottest topics in the tech world these days is conversational AI. How can a machine talk to or chat with a human in a relevant way, correctly addressing the content of the conversation? This is a hugely complex task but in the recent past technological breakthroughs have been achieved.

With these, new buzz words emerged, starting from the already familiar “chatbot” to the more holistic “virtual assistant”. In this blog, I am reviewing the key differences between the different technologies and the benefits they grant users.

What is a chatbot?

A chatbot is a text-based, programmed set of dialogues that can simulate a conversation with a user in natural language through messaging applications, websites, mobile apps, or phone calls. It uses an interface for the interaction with humans. More advanced chatbots can use a question-answer system, leveraging simple Natural Language Processing (NLP) to further emulate real conversations. They are often used to automate and streamline interactions between people and services to enhance the overall customer experience.

But as sophisticated as they might appear, a chatbot is programmed to deliver only scripted responses to pre-determined user inputs.

Despite this “shortcomings”, according to Forbes, the chatbot market is forecasted to reach $1.25 billion by 2025.

Benefits of chatbots

  • Better customer engagement
  • Cost savings
  • Collect consumer data
  • Effectively operate in global markets

What is a virtual assistant?

A virtual assistant (also known as an intelligent virtual assistant or intelligent personal assistant) is a sophisticated interactive interface that is designed to comprehend meaning and context using artificial intelligence based on Machine (Deep) Learning.

It can assist in simple to complex dialogue structure activities, with options to predict and prompt. Some virtual assistants even attempt to understand the user’s behavior and emotions, in order to deliver a human-like interaction experience.

VAs increasingly leverage voice capabilities. Voice recognition first came into play in the early 2000s through IVR (interactive voice response) systems and quickly gained popularity for its ability to understand human speech.

A sub-group of virtual assistants are the so-called voice assistants which can take inputs in the form of voice commands and communicate to the user audibly. Popular examples are Siri, Alexa or Google Assistant.

Now that we have a basic understanding of chatbots and virtual assistants, let’s dive deeper into the key differences:

difference between chatbot and virtual assistant

The role of virtual assistant and chatbots in the business world

In case you consider implementing a machine-based conversational tool, the choice between a chatbot and virtual assistant will depend on your objectives

For simple to medium complex conversations (i.e., more directing the user, with less choices on questions), a chatbot can be very useful. End users can interact with the chatbot via different messaging and social platforms, simulating a conversational experience to a certain extent. But ultimately chatbots are constrained by having to work off a limited script.

Virtual assistants can create a better user experience and deliver higher value to the end-users but require a deeper understanding of the related tech domain.

In the near future we will see the rise of virtual assistants who can truly serve the user over a wide range of tasks, like data localization and visualization, analytics, providing predictions and ultimately supporting decision-making by making recommendations based on data. Virtual assistants will enable organizational-wide performance improvements, by empowering employees to take better decisions through-out the day by providing the right knowledge, anytime, anywhere.

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