Goodbye apps, hello smart agents: Are you ready for the post-app world?

Smart agents and productivity

Gartner predicts that by year-end 2016, more complex purchasing decisions – such as where parents buy back-to-school equipment – will be made autonomously by digital assistants. That kind of spending will soon reach $2 billion (around £1.3 billion, AU$2.8 billion) annually.

"That translates to roughly 2.5% of mobile users trusting assistants with $50 a year," says Armstrong, who thinks it's significant, and that businesses will begin to partner with those in the supply chain to collaborate and deliver ultra-personalised, real-time offerings from which the digital assistant can then consciously choose between. "This may mean that businesses build their own digital assistants and platform offerings or chose to integrate their data with existing or new artificial intelligence tools," says Armstrong.

Smart agents like IBM's Watson will be much cleverer than Siri

Smart agents like IBM's Watson will be much cleverer than Siri

Expect smart agents to appear in the workplace, too, serving up information for employees on appointments, project priorities, productivity and software choice based on how you're interacting with your smartphone, desktop PC and the cloud.

How will banks use smart agents?

Got a query about your account? You can currently call, login to your account on a website, open an app, or use web chat to speak to a customer support agent. That's all about to change.

"Over the next 18 months we'll see single point of contact digital assistants used to triage people through to the correct answer to their problem," says Trainor, who thinks it's akin to every customer of a major bank having a personal banking assistant in their pocket.

"Instead of hunting, you just ask, and your next best action – a piece of content, a balance transfer, a payment to a provider, a phone number to call – is given straight to you," he says. "That's the next generation of concierge banking, and it's going to be facilitated by artificial intelligence-driven personal agents and virtual personal assistants."

Talking to the TV? You soon will be

Talking to the TV? You soon will be (Image: Nuance)

VPAs and machine learning

Next-gen VPAs go way beyond basic keyword searches, such as the Xerox-owned WDS, an intelligent, virtual customer care agent that can understand, diagnose and solve customer queries in the same way a human agent would. The cloud-based, learning WDS Virtual Agent's avatar, tone and manner can be changed to suit the brand, but its unique selling point is that it taps into data that's already in call centres about customer sentiment, described symptoms, problem types, root causes and the techniques agents use to resolve problems.

The result? It's using the very latest customer data, and it knows the newest issues and problems that customers are facing. "Digital care tools often lag behind the intelligence that resides in the contact centre, with outdated content or no awareness of new problems. Our research in artificial intelligence is changing this," explains Jean-Michel Renders, Senior Scientist at XRCE. "With our machine learning technology, the WDS Virtual Agent has the ability to learn how to solve new problems as they arise."

How should the IT industry prepare for the post-app era?

Realise the pivotal role that artificial intelligence will play in how we will all navigate information is what the IT industry should do – and quickly. Much of that is about embracing new IT skills. "Finding new types of skills to employ will be crucial," says Trainor. "People who understand cognitive computing and complex data structuring are important." He also suggests bringing more psychologists in-house to help create effective personalities for VPAs.

"Open source projects and investing in skills is the answer," says Mould. "The biggest software giants have all learnt this lesson and, as a result, their products and services serve a much wider ecosystem."

A world without apps?

The post-app world is fast approaching, but don't expect a world without apps. "Apps will exist and evolve in some shape or form, and smart agents and VPAs will become more like the search engines that get people to them," says Trainor. "Virtual personal assistants will create a better connected digital world, rather than replace it."

Jamie Carter

Jamie is a freelance tech, travel and space journalist based in the UK. He’s been writing regularly for Techradar since it was launched in 2008 and also writes regularly for Forbes, The Telegraph, the South China Morning Post, Sky & Telescope and the Sky At Night magazine as well as other Future titles T3, Digital Camera World, All About Space and He also edits two of his own websites, and that reflect his obsession with travel gear and solar eclipse travel. He is the author of A Stargazing Program For Beginners (Springer, 2015),