No, that's not a typo in the title. Most of us probably by now know what a "virtual assistant" (or "VA") is. Basically, it's someone who handles the job duties for a small business that a secretary and/or receptionist would handle for a larger business. Virtual assistants usually work as freelancers, often from home. While working conditions may vary, virtual assistants do have one thing in common - they are human. At least until now.
A team of researchers at Georgia Tech has several ongoing projects including some focused on making social media work for us - using automation. One that is getting attention today is courteous.ly, which keeps track of how much incoming Gmail you have, and lets people know how long they might expect to wait for a meaningful response from you. It's similar to those hold messages on inbound call center switchboards which tell you approximately how many minutes you might need to wait for a response.
The project is meant to determine whether letting the people who e-mail you know how busy you are will actually cause them to be more patient with you.
Will it work? Who knows? People in my experience tend to feel that whatever is on their mind is MUCH more important than what is on anyone else's mind, so it is likely they might just start looking for the e-mail equivalent of hitting the "zero" over and over until you finally skip all of those annoying hold prompts and get a live person on the line. Or, they might be nicer by e-mail.
The other concern, of course, is that in order for this to work, you have to give a third party limited access to your Gmail account. While the service does not have access to the content of your e-mails, it can see how many you have, and what is "normal" for you. It then, based on your preferences, sends auto-responders to those who send you incoming e-mail.
In spite of the questions and concerns, however, it's hard not to be impressed with the technology, and notice that these researchers are probably showing us a glimpse of the inevitable. Increasingly, automated systems are being used to handle the more mundane, repetitive, "tedious" tasks previously handled by humans. Humans are then free to use their creativity for more interesting, productive pursuits.
Jennifer Pointer (e-mail) is in Tulsa, OK. She promotes a simple, a low-tech approach to effective online profile management, search engine optimization and social networking.