Today's trends for tomorrow's business
What's Next for Voice Assistants?
March 3, 2019
Look for it in an office near you
If the omnipresence of Google’s Assistant and Amazon’s Alexa at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show was any indication, 2019 is poised to be the year that AI-based voice assistants truly go mainstream.
The two tech titans are pushing to get their voice-controlled assistants in as many devices as possible, whether it’s a personal robot that follows you around, the window blinds in your office, or even a $8,000 toilet. (Ew.)
Flashy talking thermostats and toasters aside, there are some important business trends to be gleaned from the explosion of voice assistant-capable devices right now. Here are a few things to look out for as the voice assistant sector grows over the next year.
More devices will be supporting multiple voice assistant platforms
As Amazon and Google race to corner the market, and Microsoft (Cortana), Apple (Siri) and others add competition with their own distinct approaches and market shares, voice-responsive AI manufacturers are hedging their bets by making their devices multi-platform friendly.
It makes business sense to give consumers options, right? But this approach also has its drawbacks: It costs more to initially develop, and it also costs more to support and debug in the long run.
Business takeaway: Many of the new hardware options are right for business, too. If Alexa seems like a good fit for your office, check out the HP ENVY 34-inch Curved AiO desktop, which is the world’s first all-in-one with Amazon Alexa built in. (Cool, right?)
Cross-platform device ubiquity may cause user confusion
As our homes and offices fill up with more voice-activated devices, a simple “Hey Google” or “Alexa” could activate multiple devices (including ones that aren’t our own).
Once you get the right device to perk its ears up, you then have to remember its unique verbal cues - not hard for tech-savvy user who’ll switch all their devices to their preferred platform, but frustrating for the average consumer, who may already be having trouble figuring out how to turn different voice assistant options on or off.
Business takeaway: If you sit in close quarters at work (and especially if you’re in an open-plan office), you’ll need to consider the locations of voice-enabled devices carefully. And the voice commands could require a learning curve for some employees.
Psst…it’s not really about the smart toilets and miniblinds
The real news is how these voice assistants are evolving under the hood with the help of machine learning.
- Alexa has learned to do more than one thing in the same request and understands follow-up questions, which makes for more natural conversations. This growth comes from active learning: Over the course of millions of conversations, Alexa is self-identifying areas where it needs help from a human expert (which the humans at Amazon then fine-tune). And the updates keep coming: this past December Alexa released self-learning techniques to learn at a faster pace.
- While Google’s Assistant has some of the same ambient computing goals that Amazon has for Alexa, Google is also focusing on different areas, such as language, where they’re uniquely positioned for dominance. At CES Google unveiled its interpreter mode, which can track a conversation between two people speaking different languages at the same time and supports 27 languages at launch. While human translators don’t need to update their resumes just yet, it’s clear that Google’s neural language networks are advancing way beyond the clunky “translate to English” button in your browser.
Business takeaway: Assistant has also enhanced its travel booking capabilities, which will make business travel much easier. Their translator will come in handy for international meetings, too.
The future of voice assistants isn’t just in homes - it’s in cars, too
Your car - the one place you definitely don’t want to be looking at your screen - is one of the best use cases for voice assistants and ambient tech. So it’s not surprising that around 77 million adults use voice assistants in their cars at least once a month, according to a recent survey.
Look out for Amazon’s Echo Auto, which will have location-based reminders, as well as Google Assistant’s integration with Google Maps that’ll let you send friends your ETA and search for places along your route.
Business takeaway: If your business does any kind of logistics or deliveries, you should be able to build an Alexa Skill or Google Action for GPS tracking. And the Google Maps updates will help your drivers report back.
It’s pretty cool that Alexa and Cortana partnered up last year, but otherwise, Microsoft’s voice assistant has been keeping a low profile - in fact, they recently separated Cortana from Search in Windows 10. It looks like Microsoft is positioning Cortana to become a productivity-specific app that’ll work across multiple platforms instead of a true voice assistant. Keep an eye out for future updates this year.
Business takeaway: Just say “Cortana, open Alexa” into your Windows 10 PC and get started. (And if you haven’t updated to Windows 10 yet, here’s why you should.)