Digital assistants such as Alexa or Siri carry out everyday tasks for us on command. We’ll also soon be speaking with digital assistants at the factory workbench or in management meetings. And the little boxes will increasingly tell us what to do.
Shoppers in Aachen, Germany, don’t have to look out for a weekly flyer in their mail to grab bargains at their local supermarket. At least, not if they have an Amazon digital assistant. Then they can just ask, “Alexa, what’s on offer this week?” And their “personal shopper” recites the bargain deals at their branch of the “Sütterlin HIT” supermarket.
Black, cylindrical and half as high as a drinks can, the latest-generation Alexa reads out special offers, knows what the weather’s going to be like, and will play you Ed Sheeran’s latest single on command. When Amazon introduced Alexa two years ago, it was derided by many IT professionals as a “solution to a non-existent problem”. Now, the critics are silent. Amazon’s virtual aide is turning out to be a fantatistic success. Over eight million US Americans have the digital assistant in their homes; and the latest reports from Amazon indicate sales are also thriving in Germany.
Away from sloganizing and toward a more human language on the web.
In the beginning was the word. In future also, and not just in the world of commerce. Voice control is gaining traction in more and more workspace settings: from the factory floor, where people ask machines questions and give them orders, to management meetings, where digital assistants help to analyze performance metrics. This is practical, it saves time – and since humans are speaking beings, it makes huge strides toward accommodating our preferred behaviors. Subliminally, the digital servants are not only revolutionizing how we shop, act, operate electrical appliances or do business. Beyond voice control, what we are witnessing is a new form of machine intelligence that one future day will be able to steer large sections of our world without our help.
Alexa and her colleagues are the advance guard – but they are already valuable in a number of industries. Take white-goods manufacturers, for instance. For years, these manufacturers mounted one futile attempt after another to bring consumers on board for their vision of the “smart home”. Consumers remained unimpressed. For many, the smart home meant technology overkill and app crash reports from the fridge. But suddenly the market took off. According to a
, sales in home automation will increase fivefold by 2020. Thanks to Alexa? Yes, because digital assistants, whose understanding of language has improved by leaps and bounds in the past few years, appear to be driving widespread adoption of smart home systems. study by market research company Gartner
Hey turbine, what’s your problem?
Alexa is not alone. Her sister at Apple goes by the name Siri; Google calls its device simply Assistant; and Microsoft has dubbed its digital assistant Cortana. Many people also use the products as a search engine. And what company doesn’t want great Google rankings? Unsurprisingly, “Voice First” is slated to be the next hot topic in marketing, compelling companies to make their offering understandable for digital assistants. “We have to move away from catchphrases and sloganizing, and adopt a more human language on the web,” explains Robert C. Mendez of the
in Cologne. Some web designers have already taken action. They make certain their web copy includes as many as possible of the questions that users could ask, like “What does a flight from Frankfurt to London cost?” This is exactly what voice-controlled searches like best. The traditional approach, by way of contrast, would be to shoehorn as many keywords as possible into the copy, like “flight”, “Frankfurt” and “London”. media project “Internet of Voice”
Digital assistants report failures via tablet (Image: iStock.com/yoh4nn)
Big industry players are likewise discovering how practical it is when people and machines can talk more easily. General Electric (GE) recently announced it would be equipping its
– everything from aircraft engines to power plant turbines, with the first voice-enabled installations due to ship in early 2019. Engineers will then be able to talk with the machine as they would with a human colleague. For instance, if an engineer wants to know which part of a turbine needs servicing, he or she can just ask. Keying in commands, pushing buttons, reading displays – it will all soon be increasingly redundant. products with voice control
Artificial intelligence could help to underpin decision-making – or contradict people.
Voice control is anticipated to deliver greater speed into workflows. Today, it takes 80 to 100 days to service an aircraft engine. With a virtual assistant to navigate engineers through the process, GE expects to cut around 10 to 15 days from this total. The system can even warn of failures that have not yet happened. The engineer would then be told: “Warning: part X is very likely to fail in two months’ time. Please replace it now.”
In principle, it’s easy for companies to equip their products with a voice-controlled assistant. Amazon is happy to help, and since the start of this year has actively marketed its expertise on microphone placement and speech recognition. Auto manufacturers, in particular, are taking Amazon up on the offer. Owners of a new Ford can now ask, “Alexa, how much fuel is left in the tank?” or “Where is the nearest café?”. Volkswagen and Volvo are also keen to bring Alexa on board. It’s only a matter of time before the first manufacturer of big-ticket items for industrial production also campaigns with the message “Alexa inside”.
Boiler room or boardroom, digital assistants can do sterling work in every setting. “One obvious use for digital assistants is for general office tasks,” says Klaas Bollhoefer, Chief Scientist at the Berlin-based company The unbelievable Machine Company. Even with its present capabilities, Alexa could take dictation or enter a date in a dairy. But Bollhoefer, a leading German expert on artificial intelligence, is already thinking ahead, into a future where speech recognition will be connected with artificial brainpower. “The user could then simply ask, ‘Why have the quarterly figures got worse’?”
Having reached this point, it’s just a small step of the imagination to envisage Alexa, the virtual top manager, occupying her own place at the boardroom table. “Artificial intelligence could help to underpin the decisions taken by people – or contradict them,” explains Bollhoefer. At US company Salesforce, this is already happening: a program called
, and staff can ask for its take on the figures they are discussing. Executives who report poor performance from their unit will hear Einstein’s dispassionate verdict that they “need specific attention”. Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff remarks that Einstein has done this in the last three quarters. Einstein Guidance attends top management meetings
Managers today consult digital assistants (Image: iStock.com/FangXiaNuo)
When will Alexa & co get smart?
There is of course considerable marketing hype surrounding this story – Salesforce after all actually sells the Einstein software. Evangelists such as Benioff mostly gloss over the fact that there are good reasons not to use digital assistants in B2B environments. The lack of security, for example. Alexa, and also GE’s service assistant, are essentially nothing more than microphones that capture language and send it over the Internet. The answers come from a computer in a server farm on the other side of the world. Cloud services of this nature rightly raise questions on security, since the digital assistants are sending confidential corporate data over the vulnerable public Internet.
It’s a long way from a real conversation.
This leaves the door wide open to industrial espionage. And what company wouldn’t like to know how busy its competitors’ production lines are? There’s also the risk of failure, something Alexa users will know from experience. If the Wi-Fi goes down, the assistant goes mute. That might not be such an issue in a private setting, but what happens if a power plant turbine suddenly stops and the digital service engineer is struck dumb?
Nor are the digital assistants particularly smart yet. “It’s a long way from a real conversation,” says media expert Mendez. Amazon knows that. Which is why its promotional videos for Alexa only ever feature users issuing military-style orders: “Alexa, set the egg timer,” or “Alexa, turn up the volume of the music” is about as conversational as it gets. “As things stand, people have to speak like a machine in order to be understood,” says Mendez.
No Wi-Fi means no digital assistance (Image: iStock.com/deepblue4you)
That is, if it’s possible to get the message across at all. IT professionals who develop software for Alexa can attest to just how dimwitted the little black device is. These experts have access to the conversation logs. “There’s a lot of swearing,” acknowledges IT expert Mendez. Very often users lose their temper because their assistant is so slow on the uptake, or simply fails to respond. “Alexa, what’s the matter?” is one of the more common questions. Mendez therefore counsels patience: “It will take another two or three years for the technology to be smart enough to deploy in industry.”
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