AI: Speaking Up

All the big names in tech are betting big on AI voice assistants. But who will come out on top?

By Zeid Nasser

Thanks to the early success of household devices like Amazon’s Alexa-powered Echo, and the higher than expected number of iPhone owners opting to use Siri, voice-controlled AI assistants are fast becoming the next frontier in the evolution of consumer technology.

Why are they so popular? Well, speaking is faster than typing. It’s also a more natural way of asking for information or executing commands.

Research firm Gartner says 30 percent of all interactions with devices will be voice-based by 2018. That’s why the race is on to continuously improve the ‘hearing’, ‘responding’ and ‘cloud-based execution of commands by voice systems and devices to meet the exponentially growing demand.

If the products on display at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas are anything to go by, Amazon has played its cards right by agreeing to license out Alexa, its AI assistant software, far and wide.

Also, encroaching on Google’s territory, some Android phone manufacturers in China have opted to incorporate Alexa instead of Google Assistant services.

In its quest to protect its search-based advertising revenue, Google decided to open up to Alexa and other AI assistants. Realizing that voice search resembles the next shift in typical search behavior, Google intends to deliver voice search results and recommendations to advertisers. It’s important for Google to ensure that users do not by-pass its services by going directly to sellers through Alexa and others.

But Amazon has a calculated and ruthless strategy at play with its household Echo devices powered by Alexa, as two of the main aims are to facilitate online shopping through Amazon, making it easier for users not to seek other shopping sites, and to play music from Amazon’s paid subscription services which impacts the opportunities of competing music streaming services.

Launched in 2014, Amazon’s Echo leads the market today. According to some estimates, over 15 million units have been sold in the United States, and close to a million in Europe.

But these are early days, as there’s an ongoing discussion regarding whether or not household voice assistants will actually become a ubiquitous must-have products like smartphones before them.

The answer from Apple is ‘no’. Phillip Schiller, the tech giant’s vice-president of marketing, said that “having an iPhone with me as the thing I speak to is better than something stuck in my kitchen or on a wall somewhere.”

Apple’s Siri-powered smart homes product, the HomeKit, lags badly behind the competition, while Micrsoft’s Cortana seems like it will mainly serve PC and Xbox users without attempting to conquer the home. It’s still too early to judge the impact of Samsung’s promising Viv, which is being billed as the first system capable of writing its own code to accomplish new tasks.

Regardless of who ends up the winner in this fast developing field, it will be exciting to see the ways in which voice interaction, AI and cloud computing intersect. After all, this is what’s driving the next generation smart appliances of the Internet of Things (IoT) that we keep hearing so much about.