According to research from voicebot.ai, over 20% of UK households now have a smart speaker. Germany has 11% smart speaker penetration. Households in Ireland are nearing 10% while France trails at 7.4%. These figures contrast with Loup Ventures’ estimate that between 28% – 33% of US households have a device today. Voice control at work also looks set to massively expand over the next few years.
In Western Europe for IDC, Antonio Arantes, a senior research analyst for Smart Home devices, said last year: “Google had a stellar quarter and was the clear winner in the first quarter, reaching an important milestone in Europe. Google continues to expand to new countries and support new native languages at a faster pace than Amazon.
“This is also contributing to strengthening its position in voice assistant platforms. Google Assistant was present in 49.2% of all smart speakers sold in Europe in the first quarter of 2019. Meanwhile, Amazon faced supply issues, with the Amazon Echo Dot being out of stock in some countries for several weeks, leaving space for Google Home products to grow.”
The familiarity that the general public now has with voice assistants in their homes – and more importantly – on their smartphones, is a solid foundation onto which voice can enter the workplace.
Businesses are also increasing understanding of how conversational interfaces can deliver a new communications channel to their customers. Research from Capgemini concluded: “Our research found that over three-quarters of organizations (76%) have realized measurable benefits from voice and chat assistants. In addition, on average, 58% said that benefits met or exceeded expectations.”
“Conversational interfaces have helped organizations make more efficient use of human team members and generate efficiencies. ‘The time to resolve a query or give a response back has reduced drastically because it is automated at first level,’ says a senior executive from one of India’s large private sector banks. “And, with the increase in our customer base, there is obviously an increase in the number of queries we receive. However, we didn’t have to scale up our teams.’”
There is little doubt the use of voice assistants will grow exponentially over the next few years. Interestingly, whether voice will also become an essential business communications services that can enhance team collaboration and literally bring a new voice to how companies approach their communications tools on-site and, of course, for their remote teams.
Speaking to Silicon UK, James Poulter, CEO and Co-Founder of Vixen Labs – a leading strategy consultancy and app development studio for voice assistants and conversational AI, said: “We are seeing an increasing interest in deploying voice assistants and voice control into offices and workspaces in response to COVID-19. In particular, in clinical settings where the likes of apps like UMA is being used to detect occupancy of rooms and spaces and using voice and chatbots to book meeting rooms and desks.”
Voice assistants are just one manifestation of the revolution taking place in the office. Gartner predicts that, by 2023, 25% of employee interactions with applications will be via voice, up from under 3 percent in 2019. Although most chatbots and VAs are still text-based, AI-enabled speech-to-text and text-to-speech hosted services are improving rapidly. As a result, the deployment of voice-based solutions will grow. The interface to interact with their assistant is likely to be voice. Already SAP’s CoPilot allows voice interactions within their applications.
“We believe that the popularity of connected speakers in the home, such as the Amazon Echo, Apple HomePod, and Google Home, will increase pressure on businesses to enable similar devices in the workplace,” said Van Baker, vice president at Gartner. “While there are limitations on the actions that VPAs can perform, employees will readily expand the actions allowed as capabilities improve.”
Two years ago, Apple began working with Salesforce to integrate Siri into their services. “If you look at enterprise in general, voice has not been used as much as in consumer,” Apple CEO Tim Cook told Reuters in an interview. “We’re going to be able to provide the sales rep instant access to things using your voice instead of clicks and going through different apps. We’re changing the way people work, and that’s always been at the heart of what Apple is about – changing things for the better.” We have yet to see any announcement, but the tools are available with the SiriKit SDKs available today.
In the Microsoft camp, the company continues to expand the capabilities of Office 365. The Seattle giant, of course, does not have smart speaker hardware of its own. The Cortana skills kit for enterprise [https://docs.microsoft.com/en-us/cortana/enterprise/overview] has been available since last year, but we await any dedicated applications businesses can buy off-the-shelf.
A spokesperson from Aculab commented: “Convincing the business’s customers that the system will work for them and is managed in an ethical manner. Here “ethical” means not just keeping voice recordings private, but also not exploiting knowledge gained from them. Customers need to be assured that information given to a business that uses Google Duplex (for example) will not be logged by Google or used to influence options they are presented with for future purchases through Google Shopping. Even if stored data is anonymized, it can still be used for profiling and other purposes that may be deemed unethical by society at large. Even worse, given sufficient contextual information, it is possible to de-anonymize most such data.”
Businesses are already exploring how advanced AI, coupled with voice assistants on mobile devices, could be used in an office environment. The commercial real estate business JLL has created JiLL. Users can use voice or text to converse with the app and simplify time-consuming daily tasks such as setting up meetings, locating colleagues, looking up lunch menus or shuttle schedules, filing service requests, or finding a desk or conference room.
Built on Google Cloud, JiLL is the first product launched by JLL Labs, JLL’s in-house, a global network of software engineers and product experts developing innovative and commercially strategic proptech products.
“Consumers feel empowered in centrally managing their digital experiences at home and on the go. However, at work, simple tasks are siloed and can be frustrating,” said Vinay Goel, Chief Digital Product Officer, JLL. “JILL leverages JLL’s vast datasets about buildings, user interactions and transactions with physical spaces to provide a personalized and intelligent conversational interface that matches employees’ consumer experiences. Over time, we expect JILL to become an essential platform for hundreds of skills that help employees improve their daily productivity.”
At the end of last year, Google also announced their partnership with Suki, an AI-powered, voice-enabled digital assistant that lifts the administrative burden from doctors. Suki provides assistive, invisible support, and gets smarter with use, learning the doctor’s preferences to quickly and accurately complete administrative tasks, from clinical notes to retrieving patient lab results.
“Google’s AI and cloud offerings are already advancing innovative, new clinical solutions across the health care system,” said Punit Soni, founder, and CEO of Suki. “As a partner of Google Cloud, we hope to provide even greater value to enterprise health systems by improving clinical workflows, relieving physician burnout, and, most importantly, help more doctors in more specialties remain focused on delivering high-quality car.”
One of the most powerful aspects of voice communications is its ability to personalize these conversations. Businesses understand that personalizing how their customers interact with their website delivers a commercial advantage. Today, using audio can make even close connections with consumers, as they are already showing they value the audio channels businesses are developing.
Capgemini also commented in their report: “Consumers are becoming increasingly comfortable engaging with conversational assistants. Simultaneously, they are also developing clear expectations on where they want the bot to come in when they want the human to come in, and for what sort of queries. When they are used in the appropriate situation, voice and chat assistants have significant potential to transform the customer experience landscape.
“However, our research shows that many organizations do not have a mature approach to these technologies, lacking both customer centricity and organizational capabilities when it comes to deployment. As a result, they are missing the opportunity to build deeper, more valuable relationships with customers.”
Vixen Labs’ James Poulter explained: “The key to getting voice into your business strategy is to see it as an eco-system. While many of us are using our smart speakers more than ever, we use our voices on our mobile phones, in our cars, and on our headphones to get things done. We see voice as being a complement to existing digital channels, rather than trying to replace it. There are many small tasks, routines, and habits we can help our customers using their voice that they wouldn’t download an app or visit a website for. As more of us are searching for information with our voices, we need to make sure our businesses have optimized content to be the right answers for our customer’s needs.”
Voice control will become increasingly commonplace as businesses embrace how digital assistants can improve their workforces’ efficiency. The issue of noise in an office environment will need to be resolved. However, all enterprises now use a voice component to expand the collaboration tools, which should be part of how companies construct their new support mechanism as they navigate the post-COVID-19 business landscape.
Cathal McGloin, CEO of conversational AI platform company, ServisBOT.
What is the current state of voice control/assistants in business settings?
“Spiceworks surveyed 500 North American businesses that use voice control and found that 46% use voice to text dictation, 24% use voice to manage calendars, 26% use voice controls within team collaboration, 14% use voice controls within customer service, and 13% use voice control for IT helpdesk tasks.
“In healthcare settings, voice-activated bots such as Aiva and Merit.ai are being used by clinical staff to manage appointments and reminders for outpatients. There are also some interesting uses of voice assistants within HR, including handling holiday requests, ordering office inventory, or scheduling conference rooms.
“As businesses add conversational capabilities to their mobile apps, via both voice and messaging, they can engage with customers using a digital assistant in a more convenient channel than traditional phone, email or live chat channels. Banking customers can already use voice biometrics to be authenticated to request the status of their account within their mobile banking app and use digital assistants to access their customer details. Bank of America is using Erica within its mobile app, for example.”
What are the key challenges when implementing voice control/assistants at work?
“Typically, office spaces are busy and noisy, making it difficult for a voice-activated device to differentiate the user’s voice from background noise so that they can understand requests. Spiceworks found that 23% of businesses found that voice assistants could not distinguish the user’s voice. As a result, voice control tends to be confined to quieter areas such as meeting rooms, the helpdesk, or delivery vans.
“Other use cases include inventory management in the supply room, such as asking a digital assistant to re-order printer paper. Unless the AI has been trained using highly diverse data samples, voice assistants will struggle to understand regional accents, leading to potential frustration for some users.”
How has COVID-19 impacted the use of voice control systems for businesses?
“In March, China Daily reported that a voice-controlled elevator system had been installed in Haidian hospital in Beijing so that employees and visitors can control the lift without touching any buttons. The system recognizes Mandarin and eight local dialects.
“Amazon’s Alexa for Business enables voice-activated control of AV conferencing systems and services, which offers hygiene benefits in the post-COVID-19 workplace by reducing the need for devices to be touched by multiple employees. Voice control offers obvious benefits as a contactless interface that helps reduce cross-contamination in communal areas and can play an important role in allaying employees’ fears about contracting Coronavirus as they return to their workplaces.”
Are voice assistants meeting the security and privacy concerns businesses will have to contend with to make widespread use of this technology?
“The best use cases for voice interfaces are those that do not risk capturing sensitive company data. Whatever the application of voice technology, security and privacy will be the IT department’s top concerns.
“Some applications have already been implemented by businesses, such as using voice to search for specific information in a report or file. When blended with biometrics, this offers interesting access control benefits and could also be used to support more diversity in the workplace, with information being filtered based on user permissions and presented in a format that is most appropriate to that employee’s needs.”
What does the future of voice in business look like?
“We see the future being a blend of the voice and text channels. Rather than looking at voice-only use cases for a business, there are broader opportunities to take a voice interaction and shift it to a messaging or text channel where appropriate. This blended approach helps overcome some of the barriers that businesses have around privacy and expand how technology can effectively engage with employees and customers.
“With continuing advancements in speech recognition, authentication, and AI, the technology will become better and more suitable to a broader range and more complex use cases. There is still plenty of room for improvement in this area.
“Voice control is set to expand in terms of the number of languages that can be handled. This will allow global brands to communicate with international employees and customers in a consistent and efficient manner. Verbal communication has many nuances and can be highly complex. Advances in machine learning will continue to improve how devices can understand, not just words, but also the emotions that are expressed, which could lead to innovative use cases in HR, healthcare and marketing.”
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