Voice: Trust and Control

Mon, Feb 22, 2021

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The pandemic has undoubtedly expedited the voice-AI landscape as we look for hands-free solutions—but where do we go from here? Learn more in this adapted extract written by OVN Ambassador Oxana Gouliaeva in her co-authored 2020 book, La révolution des assistants vocaux.

Voice: Trust and Control

Irrevocably, voice adoption is growing, accelerated by the pandemic and health concerns. A third of the US adult population uses smart speakers, even more use in-car voice assistants and smartphones. Recent Voicebot research showed that over 45% of consumers would like to have voice assistant features in their favorite mobile apps, particularly for navigation and audio entertainment. More widely, audio consumption across devices is on the rise all around the world, due to people working remotely and staying at home.

Voice strategies today and tomorrow

The next developments in voice technologies will concern a wide spectrum of uses, from customer service, including operational use cases with a clear ROI, to branding and brand strategy. In this context, businesses and organizations must monitor fast-moving trends and make sure that they go beyond Alexa skills and Google Actions, while allocating resources to voice experiments. Depending on their long-term goals, organizations may take multiple paths to prepare for the voice-first future, overcome Amazon and Google frameworks, and take control of their business data and customer experience.

Let us focus on this new experience, as this is what voice is all about. In a voice-first world, a brand experience is about connecting to users though voice, music, sounds, and silences. Using the audio channel and the voice interface represents a genuinely differentiating marker (and some ways a game changer) for brands, which is why a growing number of brands decide to:

The future will be multi-assistant

The list is not exhaustive and the most ambitious way for strong players consists, of course, in building their own voice assistants based on alternative solutions, so as to avoid vassalization towards the Silicon Valley giants. A good example comes from the BBC, which in August 2019 announced its intention to develop its own assistant within 18 months. Aware that it could not compete with assistants for the general public, the BBC aims to occupy its vertical, i.e. news, media, weather, a set of niche content, but central to daily digital consumption. Beta testing of the new-born assistant is now in progress.

Who else and why would they benefit from using alternatives to Google Assistant, Alexa and Siri? Just about any player seeking to maintain a relationship with the end customer, and therefore aim for a certain degree of autonomy from Big Tech: among the leaders we find car manufacturers, retailers, healthcare institutions, etc. Their isolation on the value chain with regard to vertically integrated offers means that they are predestined to marginal use, unless they also control the lower layers, which would allow them to be natively embedded in the hardware or packaged in the OS. Of course, this is a major investment and only accessible to very big businesses or major national players, often on their way to building their own ecosystem.

To this end, they can count on alternative suppliers of different technological bricks and/or white label assistants, often vertically specialized. The competition occurs on two fronts: embedded vs Cloud and Open Source vs proprietary, often combining embedded and Open Source. These alternative solutions claim three main advantages:

The fourth possible advantage is that of state sovereignty. Particularly, it is a topic of great concern in the European Union, which has failed to develop global AI platforms with an integrated value chain to compete with Big Tech from US or China. No wonder that some originally big European players, such as the aforementioned BBC, or car makers such as BMW and Mercedes are among the first businesses to focus on developing their own voice assistants.

Brands, retailers, car makers, healthcare: everyone is concerned, you first

Whatever the strategy you adopt today, you will need interoperability and voice assistant coordination. A network of websites will be augmented (or replaced?) by a network of multi-device platforms (how many?), assistants, and bots busy serving their users. Will platforms compete or collaborate? Will the network look like a hierarchy composed of ‘hubs’ and ‘master bots’ dispatching a variety of tasks to an infinite number of service bots, specialty bots, supervising bots, etc.? Will developers be allowed to create new bots and assistants as plug-ins for multiple platforms, much as today’s apps for Android and iOS? Will end users talk back to interactive audio ads to get more information or place orders? Will consumers be given a chance to possess and train their own personal virtual assistants, respectful of their privacy and personal data? Based on the recent past, we can safely say that bots and assistants will follow standard protocols to communicate with one another, but also with smart cars, smart home appliances, wearables, mobile devices, etc. All of them will obey standards regulating voice recordings, data and communications. These standards are the only way to ensure that a small number of players cannot control all the data in the world. These protocols and standards are yet to be created. Who will be strong enough to shape and impose them?

Alexa, Google Assistant and other general-purpose voice assistants aren’t going anywhere. But while they build new consumer habits, brands and businesses should get ready to build upon them. Businesses and organizations must learn how to master the new medium and get ready to take control of their brand voice experience and related data. They also must understand the importance of building standards that would prevent today’s dominant tech players become AI oligopolies tomorrow.

It is time for businesses to be included in the discussion and to design how we all want those systems to “talk” to us and to each other so we can trust them. It is time to join OVN and to design the standards that will regulate our future.

Source: adapted extract from “Voice Assistant Revolution,” foreword by Luc Julia (La révolution des assistants vocaux, January 2020, in French)—available now on Amazon.