Why being uncool is the new cool

Hyper-personalized virtual assistants, driven by artificial intelligence (AI), are the new cool when it comes to helping us manage and organize our lives.

It's often been said that computers will set us free. It's unlikely whoever first coined that phrase had virtual assistants in mind. Or, that we'd become so busy these voice-activated cyber helpers would emerge as our new best friends.

Technology that meets our everyday needs

Calling a virtual assistant just a computer might be a bit of a stretch. But standalone devices like Google Home and embedded services such as Apple's Siri are looming as major assets in our increasingly time-strapped lives. And the more practical, user-friendly and uncluttered they are, the more likely consumers will buy and use them. If a recent global survey carried out by Accenture is anything to go by, being organized is the new cool.

"We asked consumers about a range of services that were being provided by these virtual assistants; everything from managing your calendar to a fashion assistant to help pick out the right clothes. What we found were assistants that were integrated in consumers' everyday needs and managing the complexity of everyday life, people considered the most cool," says John Curran, Managing Director, Communications, Media and Technology at Accenture.

Virtual assistants aren't new: Siri has been with us since 2011. But what's behind this rising trend is hyper-personalization driven by increasingly sophisticated AI.

The power behind virtual assistants

Hyper-personalization is where products and services are uniquely tailored to the exact specifications of a consumer. In the past, this might have been about segmentation and grouping customers together. Today, it's about, "delighting the individual on a very personal level," says Curran.

If hyper-personalization is the engine that's driving these virtual assistant vehicles, then AI is the nitrous oxide giving them extra oomph. In particular, a form of algorithm-based machine learning paired with natural language processing makes these assistants easier to use and better able to anticipate individuals' needs.

This is the experience Stitch Fix is providing its customers. With no physical or online store, this super-smart subscription clothing and styling service instead asks its customers to fill out a survey. Sure, it wants measurements and style preferences, but also more discreet information such as how you commute to work or whether you're a parent. Its algorithm uses this data, along with any links to social media accounts supplied and personal notes, to build a more complete picture of the customer. The results are provided via a user-friendly interface to the company's fashion stylists who select five items from a variety of brands. These are sent monthly to the customer who can keep whatever they like and return the rest.

Sounds a little intrusive, right? All these questions, all this information being handed over. Not necessarily. When survey respondents were given a selection of seven types of virtual assistants to rate, all were perceived as "more cool than creepy". That's not to say there weren't security and privacy concerns: 44 percent wanted guarantees that safeguards were in place to prevent personal information from being hacked or used without their knowledge. They wanted more transparency and the ability to review and control what happens to and with their personal data.

Success that hinges on simplification

But it's whether the virtual assistant can take some of the heavy lifting out of life that is currently determining popularity. Those that track health and fitness, schedule appointments and manage appointments, or provide help with traffic, fit into this category.

""“People are looking for ways to simplify the bulk of their lives so they can focus on the things they derive more pleasure from." -John Curran, Managing Director, Communications, Media and Technology, Accenture

"People are looking for ways to simplify the bulk of their lives so they can focus on the things they derive more pleasure from. What you start to see is this simplification, the ability to offload some of the more mundane tasks that, 'I have to get done, so I can focus my time on the things I want to get done'," says Curran.

These practical applications provide a lower barrier to adoption and are easier to understand, says Margaret Schoelwer, Senior Manager at Accenture.

"They can see the value with the things they need to do versus the things they want to do. As we move from an early-adopter to more of a later-adoption phase, you may start to see that evolve in the future. Some of these more practical ones are just easier to understand," she says.

New era of AI-led experiences looming

This means that while we're still in the early-adopter/emerging phase of hyper-personalized, AI-driven personal assistants, the less-than-ideal out-of-the-box experience is still being tolerated. As long as that experience is based on some kind of pragmatic benefit such as beating traffic, being reminded when to exercise or take medication. Expectations will likely increase as the technology matures and begins to gain a real foothold in the mainstream, with AI leading the way, says Curran.

"AI is taking a central role in existing products and services. What we're seeing is a kind of broad set of adoption that is exciting. It sets us up for a wave of innovation across the industry as these capabilities get embedded back into existing products and services and give people a reason to upgrade their existing consumer technologies, as well as introducing new dedicated products that will really be able to create these hyper-personalized experiences."


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This page was paid for by Accenture. The editorial staff of CNBC had no role in the creation of this page.