With intelligent apps topping the list of strategic trends for 2017, bridging the gap between man and machine is coming much closer to reality. In fact, the trend is so strong it won’t likely lose steam even into next year: Gartner predicts that 200 of the largest companies around the globe will develop intelligent apps by 2018.
After all, AI has come a long way since Siri. At launch, Siri wowed the world. Though the app was more flash than substance, the program was still the first viable step in the culmination of what artificial intelligence could do.
But, as time has marched on, Siri has shown her age, and her feeble hands can no longer hold the crown. Little surprise, then, that two other tech giants have swooped in: Amazon and Google. And both are now setting the pace for artificial intelligence.
Heavy not always is the crown
Amazon gave us Alexa, the 800-pound gorilla in the AI room. Some assumed Alexa would fail, but consumers caught a glimpse of the future and bought Echo, the company’s voice-command device, in droves.
This led to new versions of Echo, and then Amazon had a flash of brilliance: It opened Alexa to development by outside companies, offering the Alexa Skills Kit and the Alexa Voice Service -- both simple and free of charge.
Developers could now build new capabilities for the device and even integrate its service into their own products. This move has made Alexa not only more intelligent, but also more ubiquitous. Just look at the numbers: Alexa now sports more than 3,000 skills and has tens of thousands of developers adding to its ingenuity.
Not to be outdone, Google has focused its resources on its Google Assistant platform. Google has integrated Assistant into the Android operating system and lets developers add to its engine, making the system smarter each day.
To compete with Amazon, the company has also rolled out Google Home, a slick, home decor-inspired alternative to Echo that connects to Google’s growing cadre of smart-home acquisitions, such as Nest. It also lets users perform quick tasks like playing music, setting timers and more -- tasks that often are much better than those Alexa can do.
Getting intelligent about intelligence
With roughly 2 million Echos sold in the first nine months of 2016 alone, this fledgling industry has obviously demonstrated that the interest is there. So, companies should that interest as a sign to start incorporating this technology into their products. The ease of use makes AI attractive to consumers.
Tapping an icon and searching an app seems simple. But what's better is vocally telling Home or Alexa, “Reserve a table for three at the Four Seasons next Friday at 8 p.m.” If an app or product provides a service, it should offer the ability to interact with an intelligent agent. That makes more sense than requiring taps and toggles.
Take Venmo, a peer-to-peer payment system. Using the app is simple, and it takes only minutes to send money. But, as simple as Venmo is, giving a voice command is far simpler. What’s more, it’s how users want devices to work, with spoken search queries in Google having doubled in the past year.
Serving your own consumers intelligently
Ways your own company can use AI-enhanced apps to maximize engagement will vary by your product and its marketplace, but will often include the following:
1. Start at the source. Integrating these technologies calls for a long, hard look at the product. Determine whether it could benefit from a voice-driven, intelligent solution. For example, would the ability to ask a Home, Alexa or Siri to perform an operation offer the user any additional value? If so, don’t delay: Integrate.
2. Focus on the most critical aspects of the interface. Look for ways to streamline an interface with voice-driven prompts. Whole functions of an app could potentially respond to queries with genuine intelligence. Whether it’s Google’s Assistant, Amazon’s Alexa or even IBM’s Watson, find the intelligence engine that can give your own users the best results; then deploy.
3. Diversify voice-controlled AI options. AI technology is nascent, with no defining standard for its programming protocols. And while Assistant, Alexa and Watson can’t be integrated through a simple development call, that doesn’t mean companies have to pick just one. Offer multiple integrations to users. The hope is to grow an audience with this type of move, not further segment it.
Leveraging a system like TensorFlow could help. This open-source library for machine learning allows companies to work with professionally built software, adapting it to their needs and using it to break down voice recordings. AI can then learn, improve speech recognition and make decisions on the basis of this data, making it smarter and smarter.
4. Make interactions meaningful, to avoid superficial integration. A calendar app that lets the user add an event to a calendar but not edit, change or modify it is just dipping that proverbial toe in the water. Taking the plunge means diving into the deep end. Otherwise, the result will be customer frustration or even abandonment rather than any real added value for the app.
Just look at Facebook to see how AI could improve the social experience. The platform now automatically tags faces and curates its News Feed to each user’s preferences. With so much social data available, there’s no excuse not to use it to improve interactions between the user and the technology in more meaningful ways.
AI can give users context for the products they’re using. It allows them to delve deeper into the experience and make it more personal. Soon, “mobile first” will no longer be the mantra. Instead, it’ll be “voice first." Now, it’s up to today’s companies whether their products will wear the AI crown.