The human touch AI virtual assistants can’t replace

On Sunday 7 January, Ayo Edebiri won Best performance by a female actor in a television series – musical or comedy at the 2024 Golden Globes. In her acceptance speech, she put the invaluable work of her agent’s and manager’s assistants front and centre, thanking them for their behind-the-scenes work, including answering her “crazy, crazy emails”. 

Assistants play a critical role in helping high-profile names and leaders do important daily buisness (think Donna Paulsen on Suits, for instance). Yet as technology becomes more sophisticated, an increasing number of poeple are asking: will AI ever be able to organise your meetings, find and book a venue for your big company offsite, prioritise your inbox (including those “crazy, crazy emails”), order your favourite lunch and gently nudge you to step away from your desk, lest you show up late for your child’s football game? Many administrative professionals around the world are waiting for an answer.

Currently, these kinds of administrative tasks are the domain of personal and executive assistants, who focus on helping bosses with logistics, communication and more. These roles have long been essential, helping top brass stay productive and able to focus on the big picture. 

Now, however, as automation and artificial intelligence technology gathers pace, there are some AI virtual assistant platforms that market themselves as an alternative to using a human assistant. For instance, ClickUp AI touts that it can consolidate daily tasks and optimise them accordingly; there’s also Wally, which drafts emails on workers’ behalf. 

Other emerging technologies not technically classified as AI-powered virtual assistant programmes are also beginning to replace some of the tasks generally left to administrative professionals. Process-automation or scheduling software can take off some of the burdens of daily logistics. Generative AI, too, can help bosses with increasingly sophisticated tasks, such as building an itinerary for a business trip, or conducting preliminary research for meetings. 

AI experts have long predicted that administrative roles, particularly those that deal with repetitive and routine tasks, might be first on the chopping block as AI technology advances.

Yet it’s not time to panic ­– if ever, says Mansoor Soomro, a senior lecturer in sustainability and international business at Teesside University, UK. AI just isn’t ready to handle anything beyond the base-level of assistant duties, he argues. “AI still struggles with complex tasks where an element of human-level decision making is needed.”

Humans may be able to outsource some work to AI, but there still limitations to what these tools can achieve. Soomro explains how, currently, “AI can’t be intelligent in terms of emotion, and that’s the toughest nut to crack”. He says the sensitivity and nuance essential to human assistants is still missing, as is the creativity many executives look for.In certain cases, people who have tried AI assistants end up going back to human assistants to do a more comprehensive job (Credit: Alamy)

In certain cases, people who have tried AI assistants end up going back to human assistants to do a more comprehensive job (Credit: Alamy)

Some assistants themselves are already sure AI isn’t yet capable of replacing them – in part because they are already using these tools themselves.

Among them is Joanne Manville, a UK-based assistant and founder of Joanne Manville Virtual Assistance, a firm of 30 employees that offer remote assistant services to a wide range of businesses. “We regularly use automation tools to facilitate client productivity, and support clients who want to test tools like ChatGPT for their businesses,” she says.

For years, Manville and her team have been using automation platforms like Asana for scheduling and Calendly for meetings, and this year added automation programmes IFTTT and Zapier, which have enabled them to do even more. Alongside these, they have been experimenting with chatbots for writing tasks such as social-media prompts, and AI-powered transcribing software for meeting notes.

Manville feels, however, that there is a big part of an assistant’s job that can’t be replicated by AI. 

“AI and automation are good for functional tasks, but people really appreciate the human-to-human relationship and the customer service,” she says. “Clients often choose their new assistant based on the person’s personality and how they clicked with that individual.”

She adds that dealing with client’s emotional ups and downs is also a crucial part of succeeding within an assistant role. “You need to be able to sense when someone is stressed, judge what’s going on and decide whether to ease off or offer more support.”

Manville also believes that even if AI could fully replace humans purely functionally, many bosses might balk at making the switch. “Some would prefer a human assistant to join a meeting and take notes as opposed to AI, as the meeting is highly confidential and they don’t like the thought of the recording being on a server somewhere,” she says. 

In other instances, clients have tried AI, only to come back to humans assistants. “We also took on a client who was using AI to do their meeting notes, but they were so far off the mark, they now work with us to do their minutes.”

You need to be able to sense when someone is stressed, judge what’s going on and decide whether to ease off or offer more support – Joanne Manville

For now, assistant jobs may not fall into obsolescence. Will that always be the case, especially if AI can improve its emotional intelligence?

Scientists are certainly trying to push the technology in that direction. The biggest research development right now, says Soomro, is within multimodal sensing. These technologies utilise voice and speech analysis as well as facial recognition technology to mimic human qualities, such as intuition and sensitivity.

“AI has been shown to be able to detect whether a person is having a mental-health issue, based on listening to the person’s voice for 10 minutes,” he says. Later down the line, more work may be outsourced, yet she believes human assistants will always have a role.

Soomro agrees that within the assistant industry, humans will always have a part to play. “AI will do the routine mechanistic elements of work, and improve the potential of what humans can achieve,” he says. “It will open doors for humans to do more and do better.”

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