The Rise of the Machines

Over recent times great advances seem to have been made with the technology behind Intelligent Personal Assistants like the Amazon Alexa however this has been brewing for at least 15 years since search improved from knowledge based and semantic to Artificial Intelligence using natural language.  Only now however are we entering a period where this technology can be leveraged across numerous product lines offering a seamless experience.

One of the starting points on this journey dates back to 2002 when Google launched “Google Voice Search” which enabled users to access the internet via voice commands and later in 2007 True Knowledge launched its Knowledge Answer engine.  In 2011 we saw the launch of Siri by Apple and in 2012 True Knowledge launched a major new product called Evi which was an artificial intelligence program which could be communicated with using natural language (The company was acquired in 2012 by Amazon and the technology became a key part of the Amazon Alexa assistant which debuted in the Amazon Echo).  Over the next few years the full set emerged which we know today (Google Now 2012, Microsoft Cortana and Amazon Alexa in 2014 and Samsung Bixby in 2017) until the technology found a new home outside of the mobile handset.

The issue with the Intelligent Personal Assistant technology however was that it was handset dependant so you were reliant on carrying your mobile device when you needed that injection of inspiration.   One solution was the creation of an always on device which could be placed in open spaces like the Amazon Echo and Google Home.  These however are also reliant on placement but if situated in a prominent place in the house with them constantly listening for command words they certainly can start to bridge the gap although instead of being a mobile device with software loaded they are now a speaker.  So where will this technology go next?  Alexa is already being placed in alternative objects like a lamp (GE Sol is launching the C which is a lamp with Alexa built in – although Dyson may be interested in the similarities to the Cool Desk Fan) and numerous other devices which are Alexa compatible like the Ecobees thermostat are entering the market.  Amazon is also launching a new device called the Amazon Look which also has a camera although initially I am sure there will be concerns on its placement and if this could be hacked like a PC camera to spy on you.  The premise however is that you can take selfies or videos and one use could be to show you how you look in an outfit or for security.

The Innovation is also not coming just from the usual suspects either and the Israel-based Intuition Robotics is developing the virtual assistant specifically for the elderly called ElliQ to deal with users who may experience social isolation and physical inactivity where it will suggest a walk when the weather is nice or say when it’s time to take medication.

Even though the technology is now moving at a tremendous pace there is still one hurdle to overcome before it migrates to the mainstream; verification.  Because the devices are located in open spaces, constantly on and linked to a user’s account with no bio-metric verification unless you live alone you would not want to link the devices to sensitive information like financial or health as anyone could request information.  However once voice verification is cracked the uses will be endless and in addition to the previous what if you could connect to wearables, specific IOT devices and pay for things from nominated accounts, everyone would want one.  This day will not be far away though so dust off those Business Cases and think of the possibilities.


Rise of the Machines

Even though technology changes at exponential rates there are numerous innovations which have catapulted technology forward and new ways of working have emerged, just think where we would be if we hadn’t embraced Broadband, the iPhone, the iPad or an app store culture?  We are now however just about to enter a new era and everything could change again.  Over the last few years we have all started to get used to intelligent personal assistants like Siri, Cortana and Google Now, however these are very reactive to the user i.e. unless you mobile is near you and you press the button you cannot use them.  One product which is currently only available in the US is the Amazon Echo which is starting to change this concept to one of an always on device.  The Echo is a wireless speaker and voice command device which responds to the name “Alexa”; the device constantly listens for the “Wake word”  and the device is capable of voice interaction, music playback, making to-do lists, setting alarms, streaming podcasts, playing audiobooks, and providing weather, traffic and other real time information. It can also control several smart devices and home automation.  On a recent Gartner webinar it was shared that By 2018, 30% of Our Interactions with Technology Will Be through “Conversations” with Smart Machines and by 2020, 10% of households in mature markets will have at least five connected home devices; all will use biometric interfaces (10.5 Billion Internet of Things Will Be Used at Home and Spending Will Reach $348B by 2020) so these devices will be key to the success for all IOT devices and especially home automation.  When these devices become mainstream in the home and cars no longer will we need any devices and everything could be done through voice commands.  In addition to the Echo numerous companies from Facebook to CNN are looking at BOT technology to use voice commands.  CNN are using Bots to tailor topics that are sent to you, scroll through carousels of different news stories and to ask for a specific summaries of a story, e-commerce sites like Spring have shopping concierges and Facebook is testing its artificially intelligent secretary, called M, within its Messenger app in the US which uses a combination of human labour and machine learning to complete tasks for you. It can purchase items, get gifts delivered, book restaurants, and make travel arrangements. At Microsoft’s annual build conference Nadella said “Human language is the new user interface, Bots are like apps and digital assistants are like meta apps, or the new browsers.  It was also announced that there were plans to integrate Bots into Skype.

In China, 600m people already use messaging app WeChat every month to hail taxis, book doctor’s appointments, and pay utility bills. Western consumers are different to the Chinese, partly because we are far more used to the app ecosystem – but texting is a deeply-embedded mobile habit in the West as well, so chatting with a bot should feel natural.

A new paradigm shift is just around the corner, so hold on and enjoy the ride