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Ivy Leaf | Summer 2018 » Features » Virtual assistance

Virtual assistance

By Therese Boyd
Research & Teaching at Penn State Altoona

Luke Skywalker had R2D2. Captain Picard had Data. And 2001: A Space Odyssey had the infamous HAL 9000. These beings were created to serve humans, and they usually did without question. In real life, though, having such a service, a device created to respond to voice commands with an action, seemed to be just a fantasy. And then Siri, Cortana, Hey Google, and Alexa—which USA Today dubbed “the Fab Four of voice-activated digital assistants”—appeared. The future is now and the possibilities seem endless.

These virtual assistants are frequently advertised as home systems, useful for turning on lights, finding recipes, and giving appointment reminders. But what about their potential to function in the workplace? Surely these assistants can help there, too. As entrepreneurs-in-residence working for Lockheed Martin, three Sheetz Fellows students at Penn State Altoona—Brad Humski, who will graduate in December, and Bill Butterfield and Logan McHale, who both graduated in May—spent two semesters researching the potential of virtual assistants in the workplace.

A few years ago, says Assistant Teaching Professor of Entrepreneurship Donna Bon, “Steve Betza from Lockheed Martin came to see some of the things we were doing at Penn State Altoona.” Betza, a former Penn State Altoona student, is corporate director of the Future Enterprise Initiative at Lockheed Martin. “He approached us with the idea of collaborating on research projects about things that will happen in the future,” Bon says. “He had four or five different research topics—AI to 4G printing to implementing Business Model Canvas concepts into Lockheed Martin.”

A previous Lockheed Martin assignment involved Penn State Altoona EMET students building a weather balloon.  For the 2017-18 year, Sheetz Fellows worked on artificial intelligence (AI) and “how it can aid you as an office person, using AI in your daily tasks to, for example, book a flight or set up a meeting,” Bon says. The students would complete their assignments and “do a conference call every week [with Lockheed Martin] to report on what they’d learned.”

Butterfield, Humski, and McHale were given the choice of assistants. After some consideration, they chose to work with Microsoft’s Cortana. During their research they looked at potential functions that might be used in human resources departments, classroom work, and job training, among others. They also visited Johnson & Johnson, Sheetz, and Lockheed Martin to see how AI could be incorporated into those offices.

In two videos the students produced (view them here and here) Butterfield demonstrates how Cortana is able to help him through the day. He changes meeting times, asks Cortana for traffic and weather information, and opens Skype and other applications. Cortana’s functions also follow him from his laptop to his phone so he is able to continue using Cortana no matter where he is. He ends the second video with “This is only the tip of the iceberg of what AI can do for us.”

The students are fully aware that AI has significant potential as an officemate and that their research is just scratching the surface. And although they have used voice commands on their phones and home assistants, they are aware that, as Humski acknowledges, “people don’t actually use their smart phones as ‘smart’ as they could.”

While the students were researching and reporting on AI, they gained future work experience. Bon sat in on the conference calls, giving the students guidance on organizing their ideas and “how they speak and how they answer questions,” she says. “Whatever organization they’re going into, their boss will give them an assignment. They will have to know how to find the information, how to organize it, and how to present it.”

It’s inevitable that artificial intelligence is in its infancy and is going to become more and more a part of our lives. Saying “Hey Cortana” or “Hey Siri” or even “Alexa” when we want to turn on a light or remember an appointment will become the norm (and we won’t hear “I’m sorry, Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that” in response). As the software improves, more becomes possible. Maybe we should ask Cortana what’s next.

Steve Betza, corporate director of the Future Enterprise Initiative at Lockheed Martin, with Bill Butterfield, Brad Humski, and Logan McHale.
Image: Marissa Carney