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Voice Assistants: Taking advantage of tech that talks

GADGET: Google Assistant

THE IDEA of conversing with a mobile phone or computer would have seemed the stuff of science fiction just a few years ago. Now it’s extremely widespread; anyone who has asked Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa a question and received a reply is using a voice assistant.

A versatile digital friend

Along with smartphones, other devices connected to the internet might incorporate a digital voice assistant such as tablets, laptops and loudspeakers. Basically, ask it a question and the ‘assistant’ searches the internet and speaks the answer back.

A voice assistant is more than just a verbal information service; they can set timers and alarms and act as virtual secretaries such as putting reminders in calendars.

Adding functionality is typical of the way tech is going - similar to finance software packages that can be scaled to include related functionality including stock inventory, payables and payroll.

How does a voice assistant work?

They’re controlled mostly through AI (Artificial Intelligence) technology so making machines like smartphones and computers ‘intelligent’ and able to think and respond. It’s a step on the road to enable people to interact with their tech in a more human fashion.

What voice assistants are there?

Siri - Apple’s offering first appeared on the iPhone; it’s since been included on the company’s computers via the Mac OS operating system.

Cortana - Microsoft’s answer and features in Windows 10 Mobile and for PCs, the Xbox One games console and the Microsoft Band fitness tracker amongst others.

Google Assistant - the search giant’s take features on their Android mobile platform either directly into the software with certain Android powered smartphones like the company’s own Pixel range, or in the Google Allo app.

Alexa - retail giant Amazon’s voice assistant and part of their Echo range of speakers is also available as an Android app.

Broadening the voice assistant’s abilities

As part of the way devices of all types are becoming more interconnected along with the arrival of the ‘smart home,’ voice assistants can control items such as switching lights on and off, adjusting heating controls, and setting or switching off intruder alarms.

Other companies are being ‘allowed in’ to provide programing for voice assistants; for example, Ford are working with Amazon to allow Alexa to interact with their cars such as starting the engine remotely to warm the cabin up and defrost the windows.

Alexa can perform a multitude of other tasks for both domestic and business related activities.

How voice assistants might be commercialised

Amazon and Google in particular are likely to head towards a method of - if not monetizing their voice assistants directly - at least using them to enhance their businesses in other ways.

For example, with internet search habits likely shifting to more speech based interfaces, Google Assistant is ideally placed to help Google maintain and even extend their dominance of the search market.

As for Amazon’s Alexa, it’s predicted it will be used to ‘tie people in’ more to the Amazon ecosystem in the way that their cashier less shopping stores do: you have to have the Amazon app to utilize their cashier less shopping.

Therefore, ways the voice tech can cause people to interact with Amazon and so increase chances of purchases are possibly being followed.

Chatbots

A close cousin of voice assistants are chatbots; these are used in many commercial settings as a way for organizations to provide customer support both pre and post sale.

These work in a similar way to voice assistants and can communicate via voice and the written - or more accurately typed - word. Chatbots are developed to the point where they’re in widespread use and can save considerably on staffing costs - and provide a uniform quality of service as opposed to the inevitable variations of humans.

This is being taken a step further with the advent of virtual agents - ‘deluxe’ chatbots capable of more advanced dialogues with customers.

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