For voice 'robots' to succeed, they need to become human
A view from David Coombs

For voice 'robots' to succeed, they need to become human

For brands and consumers to really start benefiting from voice-enabled devices, we need tech that will upgrade simple voice assistants into true personal companions.

Amazon Alexa went down this week. It’s tech. It happens. What was unexpected, however, was that the brief outage in parts of Europe made headline news; this would have been unthinkable a few months ago.

Voice assistants have stolen a march in recent months and are currently being used by 22% of consumers in some form. It’s expected that, by the end of 2018, nearly a third of all interactions with "devices" will be via voice. That will mark a big shift in how we interact with technology and a significant move towards a seamless and intuitive future.

Amazon may feel like the current trailblazer for smart assistants – it announced this month that it’s coming for our clocks, cars and even microwaves – but there are four other key players in the space, all pushing to make our interactions with technology as natural as our interactions with each other. It’s an increasingly competitive space, but Amazon’s Alexa is joined by Google Assistant, Apple’s Siri, Samsung’s Bixby and Microsoft’s Cortana, all driving the rapid adoption of voice.

Increase in usage

Yet we’ve reached a pivotal moment in the evolution of voice, where usage opportunities need to grow for users to burgeon too. Currently, the main use of voice assistants is very much for one-off tasks such as setting alarms or timers, listening to the radio or gauging whether you need an umbrella on any given day. This is far more basic than the technology's capability, but until we see more devices becoming connected in the home or workplace, the level of interaction can only be so sophisticated. As someone working closely with voice, to say the future of customer experience looks exciting is a huge understatement.

Voice is convenient. It’s always on. It’s simple, quick and immediate. As more people adopt smart assistants, we’ll have almost exponentially more data streams to develop highly intuitive experiences for users. We’re probably just a year or so away from understanding what individuals need at any given moment and helping to scratch that itch.

It’s here that the opportunity for brands and marketers lies. More than a fifth of smart device owners are already buying directly through voice and that number is expected to rocket. Unsurprisingly, given consumers’ confidence in Amazon as a shopping platform, Alexa users are leading the charge. Over two-thirds of Alexa owners are willing to purchase through their devices or are already doing so. For these early adopters, it’s a case of barely even having an itch to scratch as they anticipate their own needs.

So the challenge is to move beyond single-use cases and join up the dots, as it were. How do we do this? First, people don’t enjoy speaking with robots. From our experience at Cheil, people are far more inclined to interact with smart devices if they sound and behave like a human. Sounds obvious, but the to-and-fro interaction that contextual voice technology can enable is really important to people.

Bringing in AI

Next, we need to empower the devices to work hard on our behalf, supported by enough data to predict our needs.

Google is far ahead here with the Duplex announcement earlier this year enabling artificial intelligence to make human-sounding voice calls on your behalf and to automate things such as booking restaurants or hair appointments.  

While this kind of automation is something most of us would appreciate, there are more interesting applications for these predictive AI systems in our homes.  

Alexa Hunches will enable the voice assistant to predict your future needs by learning your habits through connected devices. It may start out with "I think you’ve left the lights on, would you like me to turn them off?", but think of how this technology could be applied to other scenarios such as care for the elderly. Being informed when "normal" routines are broken, such as the kettle not being switched on in the morning or the lights not being turned on, could be used as an indicator that something is wrong.

These examples represent the future fundamental shift in the application of AI in the home from simply being a voice assistant to becoming a true companion.

Sensitivity needed

Ultimately, though, the stumbling block for many businesses is that the home is a deeply personal space, so consumers will only open the front door to brands that they trust. Sensitive use of data will clearly play a big part here to help construct genuinely meaningful experiences.

That requires a shift in brands’ strategies too. Voice is nuanced, typically longer than text-based search queries and often very local. Brands need to understand their purpose and value to customers, focus on what the "voice moments" might be for them specifically, simplify the complicated and iron out potential pain points.

With predictions of more than 20 billion internet-enabled devices in the world by 2020, the irony for all this technology is that it needs to become much more human to truly transform our lives.

David Coombs is head of strategic services at Cheil UK