A Chatbot And A Virtual Assistant V1

Understanding The Difference Between A Chatbot And A Virtual Assistant

Gartner predicts that by 2020, 25 percent of customer service and support operations will integrate bot technology of some kind. Chatbots and Virtual Assistants (VA) are a result of this digital shift. Primarily, both Chatbots and Virtual Assistants are computer programs powered by AI with the ability to interact with humans. It has now become very common for people to interact with one or both of these technologies day in and day out and most users are of the notion that both these technologies are the same. However, Chatbots and Virtual Assistants are very different computer programs with different roles and purposes. A closer look at these two technologies would divulge their differences.

What is a Chatbot?

Chatbots are computer programs that interact with humans through textual or auditory means. Chatbots are developed using Natural Language Processing (NLP) algorithms that provide a framework for programming computers in order to process and analyze large amounts of natural language data. Chatbots are mainly deployed in customer service, HR, IT and marketing functions. Chatbots today are enabled by conversational AI, NLP, and machine learning, making them sophisticated enough to understand the ‘intent’ behind user queries and successfully simulate human-like conversation. Chatbots can, therefore, be used to handle simple and to an extent, complex tasks such as providing information, answering FAQ, sending instant acknowledgments, collecting user information, etc. They are capable of addressing customer queries regarding a product and helping customers gain the required knowledge and information. Additionally, they are also used to facilitate internal communication, help make Business Intelligence data easier to access and can even schedule meetings, and appointments on command.

What is a Virtual Assistant?

Software programs that simulate the tasks of a personal assistant such as managing schedules, handling travel needs, booking appointments, sending reminders about events and so forth, are known as Virtual Assistants. Virtual Assistants are implemented with a strong focus on the end-user and are programmed to take inputs and perform tasks through verbal commands. Virtual Assistants have the ability to understand human speech and are supported by artificial neural networks that enable them to predict the intent of the user no matter how random the query.

Virtual Assistants are AI-powered and are hence capable of learning the user’s preferences and habits over time, constantly evolving and getting smarter. They can understand natural language, recognize faces, identify objects, and communicate with other smart devices and software. Virtual Assistants are generally present in handheld devices such as a mobile phone (think iPhone’s Siri) and can be used to control the device and handle simple tasks like sending emails, make to-do lists etc. All these tasks can be executed by giving an appropriate verbal command to the Virtual Assistant. IBM Watson, Google Assistant, Cortana, Alexa and Siri are some of the well-known Virtual Assistants in the market.

Difference Between Chatbots And Virtual Assistants

The terms Chatbots and Virtual Assistants are interchangeably used to refer to conversational computer programs that can interact with humans. However, these programs significantly differ from each other and there has been ambiguity in understanding the distinction between them. Primarily, Chatbots are developed to perform only limited activities that are pre-selected. They are capable of performing those tasks without altering much of their responses. Whereas Virtual Assistants are developed to perform activities based on the inputs that they receive from the user that are not necessarily pre-programed. Many times, a Virtual Assistant also acts as a concierge or Aggregator to several chatbots.

While Chatbot communication is traditionally text driven, audio and pictures can also be used for interaction. Virtual Assistants on the other hand are primarily operated through verbal commands, though they’re capable of processing text input as well. Chatbots and Virtual Assistants despite having similar technical foundations, differ in their functionality. Following are the areas in which Chatbots and VAs differ fundamentally:

1. Intelligence

Chatbots Virtual Assistants
They can answer only those queries that they have been programmed for and can fail if the query is other than the ones they have learnt. Chatbots cannot hold lengthy and coherent interaction. They lose the context of a conversation if the interaction breaks. Chatbots are not very proficient in processing languages due to the limited bandwidth in their programming. Virtual Assistants are more advanced in their capacity to interact. They are adept in processing language and can also understand the semantics of the commands. They can also perceive the mood and emotions of the user. Unlike Chatbots, VAs can have a long conversation even after breaking the flow. Complicated tasks like finding navigation to places and making appointments at restaurants can be performed by Virtual Assistants.

2. Design

Chatbots Virtual Assistants
Chatbots are built based on models that provide an architecture on how to generate responses. There are several models that govern the design of Chatbots and depending on the purpose for which they’re used, relevant models are selected to build them. Chatbots are then trained to generate coherent responses. Virtual Assistants are powered by artificial neural networks (ANNs) to continually learn from historic inputs. ANNs are used to recognize, classify, predict and analyze the inputs of the user that enable them to arrive at accurate results for the user’s queries.

3. Usage

Chatbots Virtual Assistants
Chatbot has limited scope in its use and is not suitable for complex processes. It serves as a great tool to acquire information from customers. While most Chatbots cannot continually learn, advancement in artificially learning is gradually enabling Chatbots to learn from the interactions. Virtual Assistants have a wide range of scope in their usage and have the ability to carry out complex tasks like interacting with people on their own. Unlike Chatbots, Virtual Assistants gain accuracy in their performance with use.

4. Programming

Chatbots Virtual Assistants
Chatbots do not possess proficient language processing skills. They pick certain words from the user’s input that are idiosyncratic to the particular query and answer it with a response programmed into them. Chatbots have a structured dialogue and are programmed with specific replies to specific questions.  Chatbots cannot respond to questions that are complex and questions that are outside the purview of their program. Virtual Assistants lay emphasis on both Natural Language Processing (NLP) and Natural Language Understanding (NLU). Virtual Assistants can also understand slang used in colloquial conversations. They also possess the intuition for empathy and understand sentiments conveyed through languages. NLP gives Virtual Assistants a human-like trait with enhanced conversational ability than Chatbots.

Benefits Of Chatbots And Virtual Assistants

Organizations are significantly utilizing Chatbots to streamline their internal business processes, increase productivity, boost revenue and drive customer experience. Chatbots on websites improve engagement by providing quick and personalized answers. This greatly reduces waiting time for customers which would otherwise take longer time to get a response through conventional telephonic means. Chatbots have a very high adoption rate due to their ease of use. Adopting Chatbots opens up the floodgates of opportunities for organizations to improve their customer engagement process and operational efficiency, thus reducing the cost for customer service.

Virtual Assistants on the other hand, simplify the process of organizing and executing our routine tasks. Be it setting reminders and alarms, adding tasks to the calendar, making calls or fetching information from the web, Virtual Assistants come very handy in assisting our tasks. VAs are now capable of handling smart devices at home like lights, thermostats and audio devices. Although Virtual Assistants are limited to usage by individuals for personal needs, they are gaining quick ground in being utilized in businesses as well.


Both Chatbots and Virtual Assistants are a form of Artificial Intelligence and have similarities in their technical foundations. However, both greatly differ in various aspects. Both these technologies address different needs and are employed differently – Chatbots being used predominantly in enterprise systems whereas Virtual Assistants are used in the consumer world and in handheld devices such as smartphones, tablets etc. Both Chatbots and Virtual Assistants fundamentally differ in their design and one cannot perform the excat same functions as the other.

If you’d like to learn about this topic, please feel free to get in touch with one of our enterprise chatbot consultants for a personalized consultation.

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