How is a digital assistant different to a digital worker?

For May my posts are on specific technologies. NZ’s TechWeekNZ event is on later in the month, so I am also aiming to mention some Kiwi firms leading the way in the featured technology. 

This week the tech news has featured an announcement on the next capability for Google’s Assistant. It will soon be able to make simple phone calls on your behalf, for example booking appointments and making reservations. See the article on Google Duplex here.

This is taking digital assistants to the next level, but what is this technology about, and how is a digital assistant different to a digital worker?

Digital worker

At the NZPI conference I used the example of a digital worker, Amelia from IPSoft, who is helping customers prepare and lodge their planning applications in one London Borough.

A business can use a digital worker to staff the call centre, helpdesk or front of house to answer customer inquiries. It acts as the first point of contact, with human staff brought in when the inquiry is more complex.

These digital workers can staff conversations across multiple channels such as voice, mobile, online chat and in person via a kiosk. These workers can be used for customers or in-house, for example to staff the business’s IT helpline.

What makes a digital worker tick? She, and they do tend to be female, includes the following technologies:

  • natural language processing – matches the customer’s text or voice input to commands which she can perform
  • automated learning – she learns from experience and improves performance over time accordingly
  • conversational interface – she understands the customer’s request and responds using natural language
  • detects customers non-verbal information – she can detect moods and gauge the level of satisfaction with her response.
  • analytics – analyzes data from throughout the business to inform responses

Unlike human staff, a digital worker can deal with multiple customers at once so you don’t need to have more than one digital worker. You can see how this is a big benefit for customer service driven industries which struggle to respond to unpredictable levels of customer demand.

Digital workers in NZ

In terms of a NZ example, there is Josie, ASB’s digital assistant (pictured above) and Vai, MPI’s biosecurity officer at Auckland Airport. Both digital assistants were made by NZ firm FaceMe.

Digital assistant

A digital assistant is used by an individual to perform the mundane tasks of everyday life. Years ago, humans had to carry tasks from program to program to get work done in incremental steps. Recently we have seen some good progress in automated workflows where tasks or data can be processed through multiple programs easily. Digital assistants essentially are now the first step in this process. The person can issue voice commands which are recognised by the digital assistant and this starts a work flow to complete tasks for the person. In a work context these tasks are the sort of work historically done by a personal assistant or secretary such as dictation, scheduling appointments, placing phone calls and reading messages. In a personal or home context, they are simple tasks such as playing music or television, contacting friends and family, making holiday bookings, setting alarms and finding information.

The digital assistant is most often provided as part of a bigger software platform that the person uses such as Apple, Microsoft or Google. The platform provides the digital assistant to enhance the experience of its customers and the utility of its software offering. So each customer chooses to make use of the digital assistant, but it is the same assistant available to all users of that platform.

Popular ones include Apple’s Siri, Google’s Assistant, Microsoft’s Cortana and Amazon’s Alexa.

I should point out that there are also virtual assistants which are actual human beings. This is outsourcing of your administrative support to a human worker who is not located within your business. And AI digital assistants can only do so much for now, so I suspect we will still need human-powered help for more complicated tasks for the foreseeable future.


So the main difference is that a digital worker is used by a business in place of human employees to conduct basic interactions with customers or its own staff. It reduces labour costs and enhances the reliability and consistency of experience for the businesses’ customers.

A digital assistant helps an individual run their work and/or home life smoother. This is done by the person issuing voice commands to an AI capable program which can then perform mundane tasks. It is a more intuitive means to interact with computerised devices and is a means to fosters loyalty of the customer to the software platform which provides the assistant.

As tech uptake varies across both individuals and businesses, it will be some time before any individual or business can go completely digital with its interactions. Tech savy customers will need Google Assistant to phone their tech-unsavy hair salon to make an appointment if online booking is not available. Tech savy businesses will need digital workers to engage with untech-savy customers who want to ask basic questions over the phone instead of viewing this information on a website. Human interaction may just get much more complex and multi-channel before it settles into something simpler.

Remember to check out Techweek’s blog for some NZ-specific tech stories. TechWeek is running a series of events to take the mystery out of tech for small or medium business owners. So if you run your own practice, check out the Tech Demystifing events – these are to be held throughout NZ.

Header image of digital assistant – source is FaceMe’s digital assistant for ASB bank

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