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Are voice assistants intelligent enough to work in an office environment? Not quite, says Sam Shead. But it won’t be long…
“Alexa, email John in HR and ask him if he’s free to discuss my promotion next Tuesday.”
“Siri, please can you print this page for me?”
“Cortana, open a new Excel spreadsheet and work out the standard deviation of my latest sales figures.”
“Hey Google, ask our T-shirt manufacturing machine to make 20 large unicorn T-shirts.”
These are just some of the demands people could soon be making of artificially intelligent (AI) voice assistants, which have advanced rapidly in recent years thanks to breakthroughs in machine learning and natural language understanding, alongside the proliferation of cloud computing.
The idea of talking to voice assistants so casually at work may give some people the creeps, but research suggests these smart assistants could start to become as commonplace in the office as a kettle or a stapler in the next 12 months.
In April 2018, a survey by Spiceworks(1), a social network for IT professionals, found that 40% of large businesses (those with 500 staff or more) expect to implement AI voice assistants in their offices in some way by 2019. The study, which surveyed more than 500 IT workers in organizations across North America and Europe, also found that 29% of organizations have deployed one or more AI assistants for work-related tasks, or plan to deploy one or more in the next 12 months.
US tech giants such as Google, Microsoft, Apple and Amazon have developed some of the most sophisticated voice assistants on the market – Google Assistant, Cortana, Siri and Alexa, respectively. The "Big Five" as they’re collectively known when Facebook is included, are investing billions of dollars in AI, hiring the brightest minds in the field as they go. Firms such as Cisco and IBM are also taking steps to ensure they can compete.
Automating dull tasks
Amazon’s Alexa was one of the first voice assistants to gain serious traction in the consumer market after Amazon launched its Echo devices. But the Seattle-headquartered company doesn’t plan to stop at consumers. It unveiled Alexa for Business last November and believes it is the perfect solution for busy office workers who want to automate mundane tasks.
In a blog post in March(2), Amazon CTO Werner Vogels hailed voice assistants as a “game changer” for the workplace. “Just like Alexa is making smart homes easier, the same is possible in the workplace,” Vogels wrote on his blog, All Things Distributed. Pointing out some of the things Alexa can do, he wrote: “Alexa can control the environment, help you find directions, book a room, report an issue, or find transportation.”
Companies using Alexa for Business today include fashion retailer Brooks Brothers, Capital One bank, and enterprise software firm BMC.
Capital One has built its own private "skill" (a specific action driven by a voice command) on Alexa that allows it to monitor the performance of its Amazon Web Services cloud-computing infrastructure. Surya Avirneni, master software engineer at Capital One, says: “We’d already built a skill that allowed our teams to quickly check the status on our systems, or to request specific updates on high-severity events, but we needed a way to make this available to our teams without publishing it in the Alexa Skills Store. Alexa for Business allows us to publish skills for internal use only.”
A number of tech firms including Salesforce, SAP SuccessFactors and ServiceNow are integrating their own applications with Alexa for Business, making the platform all the more useful in the office.
Amazon’s strongest competition in the workplace voice-assistant market appears to be coming from Microsoft’s Cortana, which offers a range of benefits to people who use Microsoft’s other products, such as Office 365, Skype, LinkedIn, Bing and Outlook. In an article published by Computerworld(3), Patrick Moorhead, president and principal analyst at Moor Insights and Strategy, reportedly said: “The biggest benefit Microsoft brings to the table is integration with Windows and Office, arguably the worker’s tools of choice.”
Of the businesses that have implemented a voice assistant in the workplace, 49% are using Microsoft’s Cortana, while just 13% are using Alexa(4).
From left to right: Amazon Echo; Google Now; Sonos Play; Apple Siri
Could voice assistants run the office?
It won’t be long before AI voice assistants can talk to and control just about everything in the office, as computer chips find their way into an increasing number of objects. But it’s important that CIOs and CTOs don’t get too carried away just yet.
While the big tech firms have all released advertisements and marketing campaigns that portray their voice assistants as near-human, you’d be forgiven for thinking they make great conversationalists. However, the truth is, they’re actually quite dumb in many respects.
“Unfortunately, unlike text assistants, voice technology has not yet reached a sufficient level of maturity to enable company-wide adoption and the more innovative examples – such as using facial recognition to map mouth movements of speakers to voice – remain in the innovation lab,” says Rob McCargow, director of AI at PwC UK. “There are a number of other obstacles to surmount if we are to see a proliferation of AI voice assistants in the workplace. Accuracy levels are rapidly improving but the demand for even higher levels of accuracy will be acute if the technology is to be applied to consequential use cases in regulated industries such as healthcare and financial services.”
Could AI be misused?
One of the major technical hurdles for AI voice assistants at the moment is the ability to make sense of background noise – the "cocktail party problem" – although progress is being made in this area. Alexa and Co. also lack voice biometric authentication and can’t yet tell who in the office is talking to them.
There are also some concerns about how trustworthy and explainable AI is, and how well it will handle sensitive data, according to McCargow. “Unless businesses have confidence that AI voice assistants have been responsibly developed with these challenges in mind, then we might not see the benefit from them for years to come,” he says.
Samim Winiger, chief creative officer at AE, a studio for creative machine learning, is concerned that organizations might use the voice recognition technology in AI voice assistants to monitor employees.
“AI voice assistants in the workplace are just a minor sideshow of the bigger trend that is AI surveillance and optimization of the workplace,” he says. “In this scenario, voice recognition plays a crucial role: always-on microphones at every desk are hooked up to emotion detection and speech recognition systems. This data is fed in real time into a system which determines a worker fitness score. This score is then used in many ways to optimize performance of the organization.”
He adds, “Beyond the surveillance challenges, voice interfaces can be great for some interaction use cases such as light brainstorming and quick note taking. But they are currently overhyped. The mouse, keyboard and screen are still a much faster input modality for many cases, and allow for things like multitasking and spatial reasoning – which voice-enabled devices do not.”
Of the companies using voice assistants, Spiceworks found that 46% tap them for voice-to-text dictation, while 26% use them for team collaboration and 24% for employee calendar management. Fourteen percent are using intelligent assistants for customer services, and 13% are using them to assist with IT help-desk management tasks.
But these simple tricks could have a significant impact on businesses. “This type of ‘task-augmentation’ could unlock significant productivity growth – PwC’s analysis suggests that the broader application of AI could add an additional $15.7 trillion to the global economy by 2030,” says McCargow(5).
“Once adoption starts to scale, businesses could see a major impact on their workforces, so it is vital that business leaders take action now to consider their future talent needs and how they can prepare their employees for any forthcoming disruption caused by job automation.”
Award-winning journalist Sam Shead was a Senior Technology Reporter for Business Insider UK. Previously, he worked as Startups and Innovation Editor for Techworld, based in London, and The Daily Mail.