By now, many of us have heard about or might even own one of the popular, sleek multi-functional voice-first devices, such as the Amazon Echo, also known as "Alexa", the name used when waking the device to give a verbal command.
Quick joke: How do you make Alexa laugh?
The answer: You can’t, because you can’t push her buttons.
This joke is terrible for many reasons, not the least of which is that I ended up anthropomorphized a digital device, which may be one of the biggest issues with this devices.
First, according to Voice Labs Voice Report for 2017, 6.5 million voice-first devices -- defined as an always-on piece of hardware utilizing artificial intelligence (AI) with primarily a voice interface, both for input and output -- were shipped in 2016. In 2017, that number is estimated to grow to 24.5 million devices shipped, thanks in large part to its appearance during the Super Bowl commercials.
While Amazon and Google (and Siri on our iPhones) have an early lead in this sector, there are sure to be new entrants. In fact, the entire sector will be interesting to watch as a lesson in super-niche focused products and services, which is turning out to be a smart business move.
According to Voice Labs, these AI assistants are already highly specialized and will become more so in 2017. Here are predictions for the strategies of just the big players:
- Google is focusing on mining the web and providing intelligent responses to general knowledge questions.
- Amazon is focusing on commerce -- for obvious reasons.
- Google and Microsoft will excel at email, contacts and calendar management.
- Microsoft has a huge opportunity to excel at gaming.
- Google and Amazon are going to battle for hands-free TV and home automation.
- Apple is betting on AirPods for on-the-go use cases and should have an Apple TV voice strategy.
- Samsung will also get into mix at some point in 2017, but it is unclear the strategy they will pursue.
- All players will battle to become the go to controller of the Internet of things.
The crazy thing is that even with the potential for 24 million devices to be in our homes soon, the potential impact still remains remarkably unclear. Adding to this uncertainty are the following unintended consequences resulting from the rapid adoption in our lives.
- One child used an Echo to order a doll house and cookies without permission, and in an entertaining plot extension, a discussion of the event on a television show prompted several viewer’s Echos to do the same.
- Amazon recently agreed to turn over data to a pending murder case in which investigators believe the "always on" Echo device may have evidence pertinent to the case. All of this emphasizes the question about how our privacy will be protected by devices that are constantly collecting data on us.
- A study from 2012 seems to predict how these devices may be harmful to the emotional intelligence of children who tend to anthropomorphize these devices. Additionally, some speculate that AI home assistants encourage bad manners, as one blogger puts it, "At the very least, it creates patterns and reinforcement that so long as your diction is good, you can get what you want without niceties."
We have a long way to go until we find a device that can actually and regularly understand what we say.
One thing is for certain, the popularity of these devices is certain to grow. As for me, I am still a little wary of being an early adopter of this technology. I may be convinced, however, if the AI software can be taught to laugh at my bad jokes.