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Siri, Echo and Google Home: Are Digital Assistants the Future?
Posted December 4, 2016
Siri, Echo and Google Home: Are Digital Assistants the Future?
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By Rick Hirst. Updated December 4, 2016 9:43AM

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Analysts at Morgan Stanley earlier this year predicted that half of US jobs will be replaced by robots in just 20 years. Elon Musk caused a Twitter storm over his fears about how artificial intelligence (AI) could soon assume control of the internet. Technology is changing the way we work and it’s only accelerating. If Musk is worried, should we be too?

Apparently not if you listen to the technology giants at the forefront of this revolution. They seem to believe that we’re hungry, starving in fact, for more gadgetry to make our lives easier/more fun/more productive/easier to bear. We now trust smart thermostats to reduce our bills, we’re testing cars that drive themselves and we can control our speaker systems from anywhere in the house. The latest buzz is about personal digital assistants who can help us navigate our days both at home and in the office.

Read the marketing spiel around Amazon Echo [pictured here] and Google Home and it appears that talking to a shiny box is the new alternative to pressing the touchscreen of a shiny box. Now our thumbs can be put to better use. Whatever way you look at it, one thing’s for certain -- this technology is here to stay.

The unassuming speaker-like object is always listening and primed to jump on your commands. Need more toilet roll? Tick. Want to play your favourite 1980s Spotify playlist? Done. Need the weather report before you walk the dog? Easy. It’s fair to say that reviews of this new technology have been reasonably muted so far, but it’s the platforms that Echo (or its new competitor, Google Home) are creating that are important. What these devices can do today is a pale reflection of what they might be capable of doing in the near future. Amazon has plans for over 3,000 so-called skills for its Echo and having given access to third-party developers, the floodgates are about to open.

So, are the likes of Echo, Home and Siri genuinely useful additions to the workplace? If we judge them on what they can do now they appear to be a good, if not business critical, addition to a small business. They can be useful in the management of a calendar, the ability to raise team spirit with some tunes on a rainy Thursday or keeping on top of office supplies by ensuring no one runs out of Sellotape. They can take on simple functions that either eat up time or might require additional headcount that lean and nimble startup businesses don’t want on their payroll.

But you may have noticed above that I’ve put this tech in a specific box -- a small business-sized box. Why? Let’s not forget that Echo is a speaker. Yes, a very smart speaker, but speakers are designed to do one thing really well -- broadcast. Sharing your calendar plans might be ok in your home office, but it’s certainly not something you’d see as being de rigueur for a bigger enterprise, especially given the modern propensity to open plan office design. With no visible screens and no pre-filter capabilities, I’m sure the employment tribunals would have little sympathy with Alexa announcing, “Redundancy meeting with Jack at 3pm,” to the entire 11th floor.

And while we’re on the topic of privacy, if Alexa wants to spend her day listening to the nonsense conversations I have at home then she’s welcome. However, these systems work on the basis that they’re always on, always listening. Do we want Amazon or Google listening in to our private or privileged work conversations? In a corporate context I’m sure there’ll be compliance professionals shuddering in their chairs at the thought of the data protection issues. Furthermore, do we know if these systems can be hacked? A quick search for “laptop camera cover” on Google reveals around 4.6m listings. That’s a lot of people worried that they’re being spied on.

For now, let’s assume though that no one’s listening. Let’s assume that these devices are secure. How could they be harnessed to become an active part of a business as opposed to being a passive butler, waiting to drag random information from the internet?

A firm called HipChat has already launched a “skill” that harnesses Echo as an always-on alert system that “shouts” when one of its sites goes down. By teaching Echo to notice a certain set of conditions that will result in a problem, they are now capable of reducing service issues more quickly than ever before. In other applications, Alexa could instantly alert brand owners to negative social media sentiment, or give retailers the ability to take advantage of a fluctuation in the market to make truly dynamic pricing strategies possible.

It feels like we’ve not even scratched the surface of the possibilities of these devices. As we employ more connected technology in our surroundings, having a voice-controlled assistant at the very center feels intuitively right. It’s clear that we should have a pretty broad description of what an “assistant” can be in our working and domestic lives if we’re to make the most of them. It’s going to be exciting to see whether investment in developing these platforms will make them immeasurably more useful.

© 2017 Guardian Web syndicated under contract with NewsEdge/Acquire Media. All rights reserved.

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