Digital Assistants, Voice Interfaces, Pocket AI, Oh My!

The latest in business’s continual search for increasing efficiency and interest – the digital personal assistant. The early but now lagging, Siri, from Apple, assists with answers to questions, opening an app, playing a song or TV show, or my favorite, “take me home” opens the map and gives vocal turn by turn directions to your address from wherever you find yourself. Amazon Alexa sits on your kitchen counter and allows voice commands to learn the weather, play a song, get a sports score, tell a joke, and of course to order items from Amazon. Google Assistant tries to predict your next move and give you the answer before you even ask. Microsoft’s Cortana is their answer to Siri. Even Barbie dolls have  a chatbot added for interactive conversations.

While the artificial intelligence and conversational interfaces of these assistants is impressive it is just in its infancy.

Our computing devices are moving from logic to intuition

The evolution is taking place in three steps – passive, generative, and intuitive.

Passive is exemplified by the assistants mentioned above. When asked a question they respond with logical answers gathered from the web through Wikipedia, mlb.com, imdb.com, Yahoo weather, etc. Certain commands are understood like “play Beatles,” or “What is on my calendar today?”

Generative moves beyond if-this-then-that to actually assisting in generating new solutions based on a number of input criteria. An aircraft panel is designed from human entered requirements to output hundreds of possible options and resulting in the best solution, which turns out to boast twice the strength at half the weight. It is “two heads are better than one” taken to a whole new level!

Finally there is the intuition level. At this stage the computer has learned how to learn and “think” on its own, knowing you at a more personal level. Think HAL in 2001 Space Odyssey.

Advances are being made from the data gathered from use

Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft are collecting lots of data from our use of these assistants and attempting to make sense of it to improve these services. The result will be greater abilities and more intensely personal experiences in our interactions with them. The same technology could be used to deliver, say, better care to the elderly. As companies continue developing assistants that sound less mechanical, the line between utility and companionship will continue blurring.

Amazon recently upgraded its speech synthesis markup language tags, which developers use to code more natural verbal patterns into Alexa’s skills, or apps. The new tags allow Alexa to do things like whisper, pause, bleep out expletives, and vary the speed, volume, emphasis, and pitch of its speech. Apple’s rumored answer to Amazon’s Echo promises to take into account the acoustics of the room in its sound output.

This technology is moving to specific business use

“Businesses will have additional things to learn and put into their palette in ways to connect with customers and the use of natural language to do that is a very unique field because it involves elements of narrative and character and story structure with elements of interactive design. Those two things come together to build a computational experience.” – Pocket AI, Financial Times.

This year Bank of America is launching its chatbot within their mobile banking app. The digital assistant named Erica (from the last 5 letters of the company name) will use artificial intelligence, predictive analytics, and cognitive messaging to help customers do things like make payments, check balances, save money and pay down debt. She will also direct people to look up their FICO score and check out educational videos and other content. The app moves beyond the ‘question and answer’ basics (passive) to an expanded assistance role. Erica voices personalized advice – “Based on your typical monthly spending, you have an additional $150 you can be putting towards your cash rewards Visa. This can save you up to $300 per year.” This kind of advance has promise to sway customers away from the competition. Using the data gathered from users (Bank of America mobile banking customers performed more than 246 billion payments in the third quarter of 2016, logging into their accounts more than 950 million times) along with other machine learning inputs, the AI they are using learns what queries to program into Erica’s algorithms.

Conclusion

It’s clear that our digital assistants are becoming less like Spock and more like Captain Kirk. But it begs the question, “Do we want a personality to talk to or do we just want a utility to give us information?” The coming years will tell.

randy jeterRandy Jeter
UX Designer

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