x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Trendspotting: Virtual assistants

So much to do, so little time? Why not get yourself a virtual assistant?

Are we really busier than ever? Busier than our grandparents were at our age? istock photo
Are we really busier than ever? Busier than our grandparents were at our age? istock photo

Ever noticed how everyone, these days, is so busy? Indeed, busyness has become so severe that it has become subject to a kind of inflation. "I'm very busy" no longer cuts it. Now we say: "I'm insanely busy" or "I'm manically busy." Busyness - along with its close cousin, stress - is surely the defining state of being for citizens of the early 21st century.

Are we really busier than ever? Busier than our grandparents were at our age? True, we have a zillion emails to read, and that PowerPoint presentation to finish. On the other hand, we don't have to wash our clothes by hand or boil the kettle when we want a hot bath, so who's to say?

Nevertheless, we are perpetually on the lookout for innovations that will render us less busy. And now, more of us are finding part of the answer in a rising lifestyle trend: the virtual assistant (VA).

According to proponents, the right VA can revolutionise the life of a busy - sorry, "crazily busy" - person. They'll book that holiday for you, schedule your overdue dentist appointment, and have your inbox cleared each day by 6pm. And best of all (given how busy you are) you never even have to meet them: any interaction takes place by email or Skype.

Online virtual assistant platform Zirtual (www.zirtual.com), a leader in the VA space, recently received US$2 million [Dh7.35m] in funding. The San Francisco-based Zirtual will provide virtual helpers - mostly US college students - for a monthly subscription of between $197 and $997, and high demand means that currently, clients must be invited to the service. New York-based Fancy Hands (www.fancyhands.com) will allow you five requests a month for a monthly subscription fee of $25. Popular requests include restaurant research and booking, organising household repairs and scheduling meetings with friends. Meanwhile, these US services are competing against more established services such as Brickwork India (www.brickworkindia.com), which take advantage of lower labour costs in emerging markets.

Of course, the VA trend is another among the many ways that online connectivity is reshaping our lives. Ten years ago, it might have seemed strange to outsource aspects of day-to-day living to a stranger. Now, we've become accustomed to the idea of connecting with, and even trusting, strangers online: it works on eBay, right? The luxury of a personal assistant, and the productivity gains that come with outsourcing - once the preserve of CEOs and international corporations - are now available to all of us, thanks to the ever broader, ever more meaningful networks that the digital space is weaving through our lives.

As more of life moves online, the scope of action of VAs is broadening. They can already book you dinner via OpenTable, get your shopping done at your supermarket's website, and ensure you keep abreast of the latest music by organising your Spotify playlists. How long before - thanks to the coming internet of Things, which will connect physical objects to the online space - they'll be able to run you a bath, too?

And what will you do, when all the little tasks that took so up so much time are being looked after by an English student from Brooklyn? I'm sure you'll find a way to keep busy.

David Mattin is the lead strategist at www.trendwatching.com

For more trends go to www.thenational.ae/trends

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