As a prelude to writing about intelligent digital assistants, this informal paper summarizes what it means to be an assistant in general — traditional human assistants. This will facilitate a more comprehensive discussion of how well digital assistants subsume the role(s) of human assistants.

When that subsequent paper, What is an Intelligent Digital Assistant?, comes out (soon), a link will be posted here.


Unfortunately, there is no single, universal definition for what it means to be an assistant.

Some of the definitional fragments…

From Google:

  • a person who ranks below a senior person.
  • a person who helps in particular work.

From Merriam-Webster:

  • a person who assists someone.
  • helper.
  • a person holding an assistantship.
  • a device or product that provides assistance.
  • a person who helps someone.
  • a person whose job is to help another person to do work.
  • a person whose job is to help the customers in a store.
  • acting as a helper to another.
  • a person who assists another.


  • a person who assists or gives aid and support.
  • helper.
  • a person who is subordinate to another in rank, function, etc.
  • one holding a secondary rank in an office or post.
  • something that aids and supplements another.
  • a faculty member of a college or university who ranks below an instructor and whose responsibilities usually include grading papers, supervising laboratories, and assisting in teaching.
  • serving in an immediately subordinate position; of secondary rank.
  • a person who assists, esp in a subordinate position.
  • (archaic) helpful or useful as an aid.

Specializations of the term

Not all assistants are created equal. Each assists in some specialized sense.

From Wikipedia:

  • Assistant district attorney
  • Certified Nursing Assistant
  • Graduate assistant
  • Office Assistant
  • Personal assistant
  • Physician assistant
  • Production assistant
  • Research assistant
  • Teaching assistant

Some others, many from job listings:

  • Administrative assistant
  • Artificially intelligent assistant
  • Assistant account executive
  • Assistant coach
  • Assistant commissioner
  • Assistant facility manager
  • Assistant manager
  • Assistant operations manager
  • Assistant professor
  • Assistant program director
  • Assistant secretary
  • Call center customer care assistant
  • Customer care assistant
  • Chatbot/virtual assistants
  • Community assistant
  • Customer care assistant
  • Dental assistant
  • Deputy assistant secretary
  • Digital assistant
  • Digital virtual assistant
  • Editorial assistant
  • Executive assistant
  • Executive virtual assistant
  • Finance assistant
  • Health assistant
  • Intelligent automated virtual assistant
  • Intelligent digital assistant
  • Intelligent personal assistant
  • Intelligent virtual assistant
  • Integration assistant
  • Lab assistant, laboratory assistant
  • Legal assistant
  • Marketing administrative assistant
  • Medical assistant
  • Nursing assistant
  • Outside advertising sales assistant
  • Program and executive assistant
  • Project assistant
  • Recruiter assistant
  • Retail assistant
  • Sales assistant
  • Staff assistant
  • Student assistant
  • Teacher assistant
  • Team Assistant
  • Virtual assistant
  • Virtual digital assistant (VDA)
  • Virtual office assistant

Virtual assistant — remote or software

Virtual assistant is an ambiguous term, with two distinct meanings:

  1. Remote, telecommuting assistant. The common meaning in job search listings.
  2. Software or artificial intelligence-based assistance. An intelligent digital assistant.

The first is a real live person, a human, who just happens to work from a location other than an office of the company or organization being served, such as from home or at a third-party firm providing such services. They may work using the telephone, email, or online chat.

The second is a digital simulation of a person, able to respond to a subset of the requests that a normal person would be able to handle.

Alternatively, the software may be able to handle a much deeper or broader range of requests than any single human being could be readily trained to handle.

More depth on digital assistants will be covered in a subsequent paper, What is an intelligent digital assistant?

Related terms

Synonyms from

  • abettor
  • accessory
  • accomplice
  • adherent
  • adjunct
  • aide
  • aide-de-camp
  • ally
  • appointee
  • apprentice
  • associate
  • attendant
  • auxiliary
  • backer
  • backup
  • coadjutor
  • coadjutant
  • collaborator
  • colleague
  • companion
  • confederate
  • cooperator
  • deputy
  • fellow worker
  • flunky
  • follower
  • friend
  • gofer
  • help
  • helper
  • helpmate
  • mate
  • partner
  • patron
  • peon
  • representative
  • right-hand person
  • secretary
  • subordinate
  • supporter
  • temp
  • temporary worker

Other related terms:

  • Chatbot
  • Customer care representative
  • Customer service representative
  • Medical scribe
  • Personal digital assistant
  • Project management specialist
  • Receptionist
  • Registration and scheduling specialist
  • Representative
  • Scribe
  • Social bot
  • Software assistant
  • Technical assistance


This paper will use the term principal to refer to the boss or manager to whom an assistant reports and who assigns them work or tasks to be completed. The person for whom the assistant works. The person whom the assistant assists.

Level of expertise and responsibility — simple, specialized, executive

Assistant roles come in a wide variety of colors and stripes, but there are three significant distinctions based on expertise and responsibility:

  1. Simple assistant. Your basic, run of the mill assistant. Minimal education, minimal prior experience, minimal technical knowledge. And minimal level of responsibility, a well-defined collection of administrative-type tasks. The administrative assistant is representative of this level.
  2. Specialized or technical assistant. May require a more specialized degree or training. Requires the ability to master particular subject matter. Requires the ability to perform specialized tasks, beyond simple administrative tasks. Medical assistants and research assistants are representative of this level.
  3. Executive assistant. Not so much a matter of education or specialized knowledge, but rather able to handle more significant responsibilities. Able to accomplish tasks or pursue goals of their principal without being explicitly directed to perform each task. Almost literally able to read their principal’’s mind, or at least be able to frequently and commonly anticipate predictable requests. More significantly, is able to serve their principal better than their principal could directly and explicitly instruct them.

Tasks vs. goals

Tasks are relatively simple operations that may require a lot of effort, but generally do not require much in the way of complex reasoning, judgment, or careful decision. Only limited planning required.

Goals are more complex collections of tasks that require some significant level of complex reasoning, judgment, and careful decision. And significant planning.

A task is specified by detailing the operations to be performed. How to achieve the objective.

A goal is specified by stating the objective to be achieved. The objective itself rather than the details of how to achieve the objective.

Tasks generally don’t require much deep thought, just slogging through the work.

Goals tend to require deeper, more careful, and more insightful thought.

Administrative assistants would tend to be task-oriented.

Research assistants would have a significant degree of goal-oriented work. Possibly with some degree of task-oriented administrative work as well.

An executive assistant would of course have a fair degree of task-oriented administrative work, although they might also have administrative assistants of their own to handle much of the mundane tasks, but a fair portion of their time would be dedicated to more goal-oriented activities to anticipate and further the objectives of their principal, without requiring ongoing, explicit direction.

Primary types of assistant

There are many types of assistant, as many as there are types of work and types of human activity, but there are a relatively few primary categories of types:

  1. Assistant. Generic, the full range. Could be merely administrative or be technical and very capable, but simply dedicated to serving the needs of a single senior manager or executive.
  2. Gofer. Probably the simplest form of assistant. An employee whose duties include running errands. Lackey. Not necessarily dedicated to a particular individual.
  3. Personal assistant. May simply be a gofer, or something more, but dedicated to a particular individual. Frequently focused on personal services.
  4. Concierge. Makes arrangements, such as reservations or purchasing tickets. Traditionally in a hotel, but clubs, businesses, and other organizations now use the concept.
  5. Butler. Valet. Personal assistant in a home or club. Provides personal services.
  6. Administrative assistant. Most common in businesses. As an office assistant, covering basic office tasks such as paperwork, filing, basic scheduling and calendar, travel arrangements, and basic computer skills. Possibly some degree of database and spreadsheet skills. Duties may include assisting visitors and guests, coffee, refreshments, meals, and logistical support for meetings and conferences. No special degree, training, or subject matter knowledge required.
  7. Research assistant. Requires half a brain, or more. Probably specialized education or training. Probably subject matter expertise. Excellent written communication skills.
  8. Technical assistant. Technical qualifications. Specialized education and training. Specialized skills and experience. Specialized tasks.
  9. Executive assistant. Extensive experience working with senior managers and executives and prestigious visitors. Anticipate needs without being asked. Resolve problems without asking for help. Work well with important people outside the organization. Ability to make decisions, rather than wait or ask.
  10. House staff. Hotel staff. To the extent that they personally assist guests or residents. Such as doorman, bellhop, concierge, room service, operators, valet, or butler.
  11. Virtual assistant. An assistant who telecommutes or works remotely or off-site, possibly for a third-party contractor. Alternatively, an intelligent digital assistant.
  12. Intelligent digital assistant. Software service running on a digital computing device which provides information and some interesting subset of the features of a traditional, human assistant.

Personal services

Performing services of a personal rather than professional nature for the principal is a primary function of a personal assistant, although specialized assistants as summarized in the preceding section may focus more heavily on professional services.

Personal services may include:

  • Clothing
  • Appearance
  • Hygiene
  • Housekeeping
  • Food
  • Drink
  • Dining
  • Transportation and travel
  • Entertainment

Many other tasks

The categories of types of assistants given in the primary types section give only a subset of the full spectrum of tasks which can be performed by assistants. The spectrum is unlimited.

About the only limitation is that the nature of the task needs to be clearly and simply articulated so that the task can be performed in a direct, straightforward manner by the assistant, who may not have the detailed education and knowledge to understand the deeper why of the task. Their function is simply to excel at the how of the task.

Software service — intelligent digital assistant

A subsequent paper will dive into greater detail, but an intelligent digital assistant is a software service, possibly coupled with a specialized hardware device, such as a smart speaker, or merely a feature offered on a general purpose computing device such as a personal computer, tablet, smartphone, or wearable computer (such as a digital wristwatch), which offers some interesting set of the abilities of a traditional, human assistant, most notably answering questions and performing tasks using voice and natural language processing (NLP) backed by artificial intelligence (AI).

Examples include Amazon Alexa/Echo, Apple Siri, Google Assistant, and Microsoft Cortana.

Synthesized definition

After digesting available material on the topic, I have come up with the following synthesized definition for assistant:

  • An assistant is a person, device, or software service who or which takes on some portion of the workload or tasks of an individual or group.
  • An assistant facilitates the activities and life of an individual or group.
  • An assistant performs tasks or operations on behalf of and at the request of an individual or a group.
  • An assistant has very little or limited sense of autonomy or agency, deferring to the explicit direction of the individual or group whom they serve. Some assistants may have a greater degree of autonomy.

For more of my writings on artificial intelligence, see List of My Artificial Intelligence (AI) Papers.

Freelance Consultant