Pepper, and the Advent of the Virtual Assistant

This article was a writing submission from Casey Van Maanen for the 2018 International Conference’s writing competition; it received 5th place. Congratulations to Casey for the great accomplishment, and we all hope you enjoy this outside piece!

Imagine being able to order takeout, shuffle your music playlist or book a flight with nothing more than the utterance of a few words. Not so hard anymore, is it? Computers, smartphones and tablets are still the norm when it comes to accessing information, but now share a space with up-and-coming virtual assistants. Certain assistants supplement a multi-use smart device, while offerings like Google's assistant are independently installed into a smart speaker; whatever their configuration, their range of uses in the home and familiarity to the public continue to increase. A virtual assistant is programmed to be conversational, relying on natural language processing and other AI techniques to understand and make suggestions on what the user is saying. It eliminates the separate nature of performing daily tasks; instead of opening your laptop to find the business hours of a nearby bank, or getting your phone to text a colleague, a virtual assistant can do both immediately with only the sound of your voice.

Despite the growing popularity of virtual assistants within the home, their widespread presence in the workspace remains to be seen. Sure, people can bring their home device to work, but few companies have taken to implementing them into daily business activities. Recently however, certain technological advancements are enabling businesses to capture the full potential of a virtual assistant - in the form of a robot. Softbank Robotics America, a firm in San Francisco, is in the business of producing humanoid robots that behave as interactive virtual assistants. Their robots, Pepper, is designed to be fully interactive in that it can initiate a conversation and even perceive people's emotions. It contains registers that analyze the behavior of its interlocutor; Pepper can detect facial expressions, tone of voice and body language. It can be placed in a public setting and interact with passerby, which is captivating for any business looking for a novel way to manage customer relations.

One company toying with the idea of adding a virtual assistant robot into the mix of their services is ATB Financial, a financial institution and Crown corporation only found in Alberta, Canada. Pepper has been put on display at some of their retail branches as early as last year, to give people an idea of what former CEO Dave Mowat calls "the future of banking". Placed in the front of the branch foyers, Pepper acts as a greeter and as a source of information; it can relay information about ATB's products and services, and it offers customers the chance to become familiar with financial terminology. In a keynote speech at the University of Lethbridge, ATB's Chief Evangelist Lorne Rubis spoke of how interactive technology was leading the way in transforming not only retail banking, but all service related fields across all industries. Virtual assistants like Pepper will inevitably become part of the retail fabric, and though the intention is to make life easier, not everyone will be better off.

Students, whether they're in high school or post-secondary, are in trouble. A threat that has been looming for some time is how teenagers and young adults will be ousted from applying to entry level jobs, replaced by some form of automation. It may seem like a distant reality, but if the growth in technological advancements continues to rise and become more affordable, businesses will yield to newer, technology ridden measures. Entry level jobs, like that of a bank teller, pose an opportunity to build on soft skills; these skills, like being able to communicate or learning to delegate tasks, aren't necessarily taught in school, but are invaluable regardless of the career path one chooses. If a virtual assistant like Pepper becomes the norm in retail banking, being able to apply to an industry specific entry level job won't be a walk in the park.

Another blow to students would be the widening of a skills gap; it won't just be entry level jobs that become scarce; entire industries could see formerly secure job titles eliminated. If that does happen, competition for the jobs that do remain will increase, and employers will more than likely side with applicants who show the greatest amount of skill. Students are at a disadvantage by default; most lack any experience beyond their classroom studies. If students aren't capable of identifying the trends in technology that could sweep through the workforce, the chance of landing a sustainable career could elude them.

Virtual assistants are likely to be a part of a tech-forward transition in business. They stand to eliminate jobs and create competition amongst those willing to work. A solution for a student worried about their future is this: self-educate and network. Grades are important, yes; it shows discipline to achieve an A in your classes. But, if you put into perspective the thousands of other students who share that same goal, it can be hard for an employer to pick you out of the crowd. That's where marketing yourself will play the difference. For management students, self education can be anything from reading a book on portfolio management, to watching financial modeling tutorials on YouTube, to getting a certificate in Microsoft Excel. No matter the activity, you will become more immersed in your future profession and gain quantifiable skills along the way. Networking means getting your name on the map: talking to students in your major, reaching out to school alumni, or scheduling a meeting with an industry professional. It can be uncomfortable, and there's no guarantee of any upfront job offer, but people you'll be able to foster new relationships and work on pitching yourself as a prospective businessperson. There is no use fighting Pepper the robot, other virtual assistants, or the array of different technological inventions that will grace the job market; fight instead for building your own skills and presentability.