digital voice assistant (metamorworks/

Alexa goes to work: Digital voice assistants in the office

Can digital voice assistants find a home in government agencies? 

Scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory are testing whether  tools like Alexa, Cortana, Siri and Google Home, along with various text-based chatbots can automate basic workflow tasks like scheduling meetings, looking up contract information or answering commonly asked questions.

"We're on the cutting edge when it comes to landing rovers on Mars, but we're not on the cutting edge … in how we get out work done on the IT side sometimes," said Michael Cox, JPL's team lead for internet of things.

Conversational assistants  are becoming increasingly common, with one report estimating that more than 47 million Americans have a smart speaker in their home, and many smartphones come with voice-powered assistants. This penetration in the consumer marketplace means people are ready to use the technology when they get to work, too, Cox said.

JPL started out by primarily using Alexa for these projects, but developers have moved a majority of the virtual assistants onto Amazon Lex, a cloud-based backend for building chatbots.

"In addition to all of the stuff that Alexa gives you, Lex gives you the ability to do text-based queries instead of just audio," Cox said.

While voice interfaces are popular in consumer devices, they are often not the best option at the office, whether because people don't want their coworkers to hear them or because they're looking for information while in a meeting. This is where chatbots come in handy.

Chatbots have proved useful for simple productivity tasks like booking a meeting or remembering phone numbers. JPL also used Lex to create a room-bot for Slack that allows employees to tell the bot when they need a conference room and have it respond with what is available.

The JPL acquisition team is currently beta testing an automated tool that answers 11 commonly asked questions. The Alexa skill Cox and his team built has been able to save "around 70 percent of the time they previously spent asking and answering those questions."

It's so much faster that the 10 people who are testing it have been asked by other acquisition staff to help them out.

"It's so much more practical and efficient … that other members of acquisition are actually calling these [beta testers] with their questions so that they can put them into this intelligent assistant, get the answer out, tell them an answer over the phone and then they have the answer," Cox said. "And that is still faster than the old way of doing things logging into two or three systems and getting your answer out."

Many of the text-based assistants are accessed through a web portal that leads to a large chat screen. But JPL is also looking at using mobile text messages to interact with the virtual assistants. The goal is to have a backend, like Lex, that will provide a consistent experience as the user interface changes with technological evolution.

Right now, though, these are all just proof-of-concept projects. The next step, Cox said, is making them into final products to be used across JPL.

"We want to make these chatbots and [intelligent digital assistants] ubiquitous and a part of the everyday workflow for all JPLers," Cox said.

About the Author

Matt Leonard is a former reporter for GCN.


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