INSIGHT

Prepare to be deafened

Siri's cousins will invade your workspace

Voice controlled technology. It’s now fermenting nicely and set to disrupt how we experience the world. Perhaps to a greater degree than VR or AR. Yet while AI assistants like Amazon Echo have crossed the adoption chasm, there are few early adopters in the workplace.

But there will be. Canute cannot stop the tide.

Consider what happened with smartphones. From cutting-edge devices for the profligate since the launch of the iPhone on 9 January 2007 to an 81% adoption rate today, according to Deloitte’s 2016 Mobile Consumer Survey. Only 3,548 days passed in between. And the time from launch-to-ubiquity continues to accelerate. Slack’s been adding more than 1m users every six months. And let’s not forget Pokemon Go, with 50m worldwide downloads within 19 days of release.

So, no matter how counter-intuitive it seems right now (‘How would I use voice control in the workplace, won’t muttering to myself bother others?’), the voice tech wave is about to disrupt how we do things. Bringing opportunities and problems, winners and losers.

Because voice control brings distinct advantages, it will be adopted as soon as it’s easy to. In fact, the trends in the now-established consumer marketplace are already making it clear there will be bleed. As TechCrunch trumpets: “The age of voice is about to arrive”. A lot of coders are learning a lot of new skills.

Apple’s recently-launched AirPods connect users (via their voice) to iPhone, Apple Watch or iPad, and of course work in sync with Siri. Which is also an integration What’sApp has just invested in. Meanwhile, having bought speech recognition and language interface start-up API.ai Google is preparing to launch the smart messaging app with a voice activated assistant, Allo. Last year Facebook bought voice and natural language interface start-up Wit.ai. And, TheVerge reports, Apple’s taking Siri to the next level and making it into a full virtual assistant.

If this is wrapped up in a voice-activated speaker, it will rival Echo and Google Home by voice-controlling more or less anything that’s internet connected. This feels like an Apple play akin to the iPod and how it dominated the MP3 market. Wait for the tech to prove itself. Then execute it a lot better. When Apple shows up, the market is usually ripe.

And as their trademark intuitive experience fuels mass adoption, much of this new wave of tech – especially AirPods – can be expected to port over to work directly. Like your smartphone did.

But there’s no doubt that the office will also need dedicated products. Research from US venture capital firm KPCB found just three per cent of speech activated tech usage currently happens at work.

Step forward Cisco. And the somewhat questionably named “Monica”. Monica will be a voice-activated digital assistant for the enterprise. And she wants to turn your office into a place where all of your data is just a voice command away. Lightreading reports that, among other things, she’ll be able to access financial results, attendance records or product designs - and display them on a screen when asked.

But many, including TechCrunch, worry that the complex demands of the office environment will hinder adoption.

Reporter Dan Reich says: “Siri for work is a much heavier problem to solve because of the variance amongst organisational processes, systems and preferences. For consumer applications, there isn’t nearly as much divergence in the answers users expect.”

And the complexity is an issue. Perhaps right now, even a vexed one. But with more and more data being accessible via APIs, it will be cracked.

In fact, voice activated tech has already been adopted by some organisations, albeit for a narrow range of purposes. Adage reports that Theatro’s clip-on computers for retail staff have been a huge success. The devices allow assistants to check the store’s inventory and talk to each other without leaving a customer’s side.

Maintaining eye contact and providing slick, well-informed customer service without having to look at a screen – that has a positive impact on sales. And makes for a disruptive brand.

 
 

So, tech is already finding its voice in the workplace. And the use cases will keep getting wider as the APIs improve. Then we’ll all want to join in the conversation - because no one likes getting lost under a tidal wave of disruption.

So, place your bets now.  Which enterprise hardware / app behemoth will be the Canute in three years’ time?

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