Silicon Valley Watcher - Former FT journalist Tom Foremski reporting from the intersection of technology and media

The Future Will Be Voice Operated Only When Digital Assistants Learn To Use Apps

Posted by Tom Foremski - August 1, 2017

Voice

Our voice is important for Democracy… and in getting more productivity from our technologies.

The future sounds a little like Cold War Eastern Europe as the digital assistants try to listen-in and construct individual dossiers on each of us — to sell us goods and services rather than sell us out as secret policemen — but then again there’s all types of data buyers and digital assistants will only get better.

I have been reading some of the reviews of the improved and updated digital assistants — a growing crowd — and there is a common theme of disappointment.

Steve Kovach at Business Insider says it’s time to admit digital assistants are overrated:

The hype around digital assistants is real. But for now, it's just that. Hype. And it’s arguably the more overrated than any other emerging technology…digital assistants have turned into a fragmented mess and they're all little more than a minor convenience, assuming they work at all.

The biggest disappointment seems to be that they all handle applications poorly.  Yet we live in a 24/7 app world and each of us rely on dozens of daily apps to get work, life and the people and things we love organized. 

Siri, Alexa, Google Assistant, Bixby, and there’s more coming — are great if you want some information to win a bet with your buddies, or set a timer — Siri is brilliant at setting a timer. But the way they handle apps is terrible yet this is where the largest and most significant business opportunity lies.

The future will be voice operated. This means whoever does voice initiated tasks the best will win a strategic victory as the gateway to a user’s daily commercial and computing interactions, at work and at home.

But there’s still a lot that needs to happen before we will be able to use voice as a powerful user interface. It has to be very good at handling my applications — as good as if I were to talk to a human assistant.

Take a look at these possible voice commands: 

- Deliver the items on my weekly shopping list Friday afternoon and check for lowest prices on the produce. 

- I need Alphabet’s quarterly revenues for the past two years broken out by Adwords, and Adsense revenues in a graph plotted against traffic acquisition costs and mark the quarters that beat Wall Street estimates.

- Find the photos from last Saturday’s picnic, adjust for white balance and send me only the shots with me and my brother for review then email them to my mother. 

In these examples the voice gateway could choose alternate suppliers or band together with other buyers for lower prices plus there was no need to specify an app just the action and outcome. That’s a lot of power in the hands of the digital assistant.

Apps are key…

If digital assistant can control apps — and navigate their command structure to perform a complex set of connected tasks that might be called different things within different apps — then this is a huge step forward for computer literacy because people can voice the outcome they want without needing the skills to operate the software.

People that haven’t learned how to use computers will get nearly the same benefits as longtime computer users.

But it’s a troubling development for app developers. Sure, they want people to easily interface with their software using voice but a digital assistant could choose any relevant software to get the task done. The user won’t care if the results are what they expected. 

Walled Gardens are always listening…

All the major players are building walled gardens around their digital assistants. This is bad for competition and it is bad for the user.

If you are a major retailer and you do not have a digital assistant you are in trouble. As voice becomes more of a mainstream user interface how will independent retailers compete?

It’s clear that we will have many digital assistants around us at any time, listening and ready to jump in and help us. Will we trust them?

Is my digital assistant listening and working for me and my best interests? Or is it listening-in to sell data about me and to sell me out in whatever way it can? 

For the user it makes sense to shun the walled gardens and have an independent digital assistant that is not tied to Google or Amazon or whichever set of services and capabilities each one provides. 

Either way, the winner among the voice-enabled digital assistants will be the one handles apps the best — this is not a trivial task. 

Using voice commands to invoke a series of computing processes sounds like an invocation, like a magic spell but this is not a fantasy — it is a description of a real future ahead of us.

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The Holmes Report names Tom Foremski one of the top 25 Innovators of 2013.




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