2016 trends series: Virtual assistants will enable new commerce platforms, replacing search engines as we know them

Published on March 24, 2016

We have collated 10 trends that we think are reshaping digital in 2016. This is the fourth installment of our series which looks at things that are happening now in Q1, whilst identifying trends to look out for in the rest of the year.

You may already be familiar with many of the trends we highlight in this series, but the cycle of innovation and iteration that our industry is known for means existing concepts can suddenly find radically new trajectories. In this series, we highlight ten ideas that are gaining rapid traction today, and which will reshape how we digitally interact with the world around us.

To help you organize your priorities for the trends in this series, we have sorted them as “trends to prepare for now” and “trends to start thinking about”.

Our fourth installment is a trend to start thinking about:

Virtual assistants will enable new commerce platforms, replacing search engines as we know them


Companies are racing to build products that act as omniscient personal assistants, automating cognitive tasks. Some products – like Apple’s Siri, Google Now, or Microsoft’s Cortana – 
rely entirely on algorithms and though they can be used by a lot of people, their range of tasks remains limited. Others, like startups Magic and Operator or gig-economy companies like TaskRabbit, employ people to respond to text-based requests. These services can get nearly anything done, but are hard to scale.

Facebook M is a hybrid. It’s a virtual assistant powered by artificial intelligence as well as a band of Facebook employees, dubbed M trainers, who will make sure that every request is answered while also training the AI so that it eventually can take over. Early reports indicate that this hybrid approach is paying dividends and may prove to be the way forward. We’ve seen this approach be effective in getting text analytics (NLP) to work better, and next-generation machine learning techniques should enhance this further.

Many see a more advanced and reliable assistant replacing search engines. Whether controlled with voice commands like Siri or through a text-based messenger like Facebook M, AI-powered assistants not only surfaces information you are looking for based on what it already knows about you but can go one step further and complete tasks. These services are becoming more ingrained into the way we interact with our devices.

Google Now takes this further, using passive AI technology 
for Android phones. This means your phone has access to 
all the information within its apps, and can make recommendations or offer to take action based on everything 
it knows about you and the information within its apps. If 
you have a flight booked, Google Now will keep you updated on the flight status, advise you on timings for your journey to 
the airport and prepare your boarding pass for you.

The company that wins the virtual assistant race stands to profit from matching businesses with people looking for services similar to theirs, much as Google currently does through search, creating a gold rush in the years ahead between the tech giants.

You can find the whole series here:

10 trends reshaping digital – updated Q1 2016 from Beyond