After drones in 2013, 3D printing in 2014, smartwatches in 2015 and virtual reality in 2016, the world of technology now appears to have found a new concept to enthuse about in 2017: voice-controlled interfaces.

Voice-based applications and speakers

Whether it is Microsoft’s Cortana, Google’s Assistant, Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa, all the GAFA companies are investing heavily in new spoken dialogue interfaces which combine artificial intelligence technologies and natural language processing.
Over the last few months, Apple has integrated Siri into its Mac OS and Google has unveiled ‘Home, a smart speaker which incorporates its voice assistant. But Amazon is now very much in the spotlight, thanks to the success of its Echo speaker, almost 5 million of which have been sold in the US.

Furthermore, at the Consumer Electronic Show (CES) in Las Vegas at the beginning of the year, Amazon was able to unveil an extensive ecosystem of partners who were integrating its technology into their products. These included a device from Mattel which can read stories to children, a Lenovo speaker which offers better sound quality than Echo, LG’s Hub domestic robot, a car radio from Ford and even a 100% voice-controllable washing machine and oven from Whirlpool.

The voice control capabilities of devices featuring Amazon’s Alexa system can simplify and improve users’ daily lives. Families can now set the temperature of their oven or change their washing cycle using only their voices. As demand grows for a smart ecosystem, consumers are looking for new ways to interact with their devices – whether directly with the product or digitally, via an application or voice control”, explains Brett Dibkey, Vice-President of the Whirlpool Corporation’s Operations Division.

This trend is confirmed by Shawn DuBravac, Research Director at the CTA, the organisation which founded the Las Vegas CES. “Traditional computer interfaces (screens, keyboards, etc.) are gradually being replaced by devices which can respond to the human voice and converse with the user using natural language. Amazon was the trailblazer with its domestic digital assistant, Alexa, and this has now been followed by Google Home. By the end of 2017, ten million of these speaking “digital valets” will have been purchased by American and European households. And these devices will be capable of performing even more functions. Furthermore, these voice-controlled technologies are currently available to all the world’s developers, who are integrating them into everyday objects such as lamps, doors, radios, cars, vacuum cleaners…”, he explains.

From voice response system to conversational agents

“Even though young people use different types of written messaging platforms more than the telephone, on any given day they speak more than they write. A written chatbot is an intermediate step towards an audio chatbot. It is a preparatory stage. The human voice is far more expressive than text. It reveals the person’s mood, their emotions, style and even identity through their voiceprint. The GAFA companies are catering for what we find most natural. And, it has to be said, it serves as a great playground for artificial intelligence laboratories, which can finally showcase their achievements to the general public”, states Sébastien de la Bastie, Director General of Invoxia, a specialist audio equipment company which has received investment from Amazon.

However, talking to machines is nothing new; consumers have been trialling interactive voice response systems, with varying degrees of success, for more than twenty years. But the technologies now offered by the GAFA companies are far more sophisticated.
“Voice response systems used to be very basic and provided access to a small amount of pre-recorded information via touch tones. Some improvements were made, such as interactivity or the recognition of a word, but this was a far cry from the revolution we are experiencing today. The new voice-controlled interfaces use technologies such as Speech to text (STT) or Natural Language Processing (NLP) not only to understand words but also to understand these words in contexts. The other revolution which is taking place is in machine learning, which will enable the system to learn, self-correct and build up experience as it is used. All these technologies are now easily and freely available, via the Cloud, from the big names in ICT”, explains Nicolas Benoist, Technical Director at UserADgents, a company which specialises in designing mobile interfaces and connected objects.

A new opportunity for brands

Like the GAFA companies, which are conducting large numbers of experiments with new man-machine interfaces, brands are keen to use all the possibilities offered by these new interfaces to provide a better user experience.
“Along with our team of artificial intelligence experts, we are conducting a number of tests, including one involving Amazon Echo, because we believe that the human voice can have a real commercial impact, particularly with the elderly, for whom a smartphone is still primarily a telephone”, says Stéphane Delbeque, Digital Expertise Manager for the AXA Group.

“We aim to offer a simpler, more streamlined and more personalised user experience. And that can include natural language, either spoken or written, in our applications or on Messenger. Our old voice response system only had about thirty sections but we can now provide our customers with an infinite number of potential responses. Alongside this, we have conducted a POC (Proof of Concept) on Amazon Echo and this has enabled us to delinearise the customer journey. For example, a conversation which begins with a question about the weather may well end with the consumer buying a train ticket for a trip to a sunny destination”, adds Benoît Bouffart, Products, Customer Experience and Innovation Manager at Voyages-SNCF.com, a company which has developed its own NLP software applications package with a specifically tourism-related lexical field.

Whether it is Amazon (Alexa), Google (API.ai), Apple (Siri), Microsoft (Azure), IBM (a leader in the field of artificial intelligence with Watson), or Facebook (which has just acquired the French start-up Wit.ai), voice-controlled interfaces seem, in just a few months, to have become a strategic priority for the big names of Silicon Valley.

After mouse clicks and touchscreens, is the human voice the future of smartphones and connected objects? How will these new voice-controlled services be positioned on the web and how will people find out about them? Will consumers identify themselves by voice signature? And, more importantly, what types of business models will emerge and what kind of interaction will there be with brands? Questions such as these reflect the dynamism of the mobile ecosystem and raise issues which the Mobile Marketing Association France will be addressing over the coming months.

Article originally published in French on http://www.journaldunet.com


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