Voice as­sis­tants stride ahead


There has been no killer gad­get at this year’s in­ter­na­tional CES tech­nol­ogy show. In­stead, some­thing more sub­tle has emerged as the key­stone of the tech world.

I’m talk­ing about the smart, cen­tral voice as­sis­tant. Yes, even that may sound a bit old hat for those who’ve been pay­ing at­ten­tion. Techies have been talk­ing about con­nected gad­gets and the po­ten­tial cen­tral­is­ing power of ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence for years now.

The dif­fer­ence is that at this year’s Consumer Elec­tron­ics Show we’re see­ing so many high-qual­ity gad­gets that ac­tu­ally live up to that prom­ise. We’re out of the pro­to­type stage and on to the prac­ti­cal. Rather than hav­ing to do a lot of re­search about what will work with your par­tic­u­lar voice as­sis­tant, you’ll be spoiled for choice. In fact, you al­most can’t turn a cor­ner with­out see­ing a prod­uct that fea­tures Alexa. Ama­zon’s voice as­sis­tant jumped to an early lead in the mar­ket at the show. Whether Alexa can keep that lead, how­ever, is de­bat­able. Vir­tual as­sis­tants can now un­der­stand what you say and even in­ter­pret the many ways you may say it.

Shawn Dubravac, an econ­o­mist for the Consumer Tech­nol­ogy As­so­ci­a­tion, said that ma­chines now have the same word er­ror rate – that is, the bat­ting av­er­age of un­der­stand­ing what we’ve ac­tu­ally said – as hu­mans. That’s a change from a 23 per cent er­ror rate in 2013, mean­ing that the tech is get­ting bet­ter, and quickly.

That fact has made the dreams ofa Star Trek-like com­puter come closer to re­al­ity.

The hope is that these as­sis­tants will move even be­yond our sci-fi dreams and learn our habits and needs well enough to an­tic­i­pate them. At the show, voice as­sis­tants were be­ing shown off in cars, re­frig­er­a­tors, night­stand clocks – they were just in ev­ery­thing.

From a pri­vacy stand­point, all that data col­lec­tion can be off­putting, mer­it­ing more dis­cus­sion than a week-long elec­tron­ics show can ac­com­mo­date. But from a con­ve­nience stand­point? It’s stun­ning to think about.

In the next few years, the com­pe­ti­tion to make the best voice as­sis­tant will reach new heights, as tech com­pa­nies jockey to be the voice of your con­nected life. But the bat­tle is half­way won for voice­con­trol evan­ge­lists. A size­able num­ber of tech com­pa­nies are al­ready fully on board with voice­con­trolled gad­gets and sys­tem.

Touch­screens and but­tons won’t dis­ap­pear com­pletely, at least for now, but the most ba­sic func­tions – turn­ing lights on and off, turn­ing ther­mostats up and down, paus­ing and play­ing – are solidly in the voice-con­trol realm.

It’s not per­fect yet – it could take a cou­ple of years to fix the an­noy­ing ‘‘No, Alexa, I said TURN OFF THE LIGHTS!’’ is­sues that can turn peo­ple off smart as­sis­tants. Even on the floor at the show­case CES, few voice tech­nol­ogy demos worked smoothly.

So, con­sumers will still have to live through the bugs and grow­ing pains of voice as­sis­tants over the next few years. Ma­chines are now learn­ing from us, which in some ways re­sets the ca­dence of in­no­va­tion it­self.

Tech­no­log­i­cal im­prove­ment is now about con­stant, small steps rather than gi­ant leaps. It’s less about adding to your life, and more about steadily sub­tract­ing has­sle from it. That means we may not have a moment that feels like the fu­ture has ar­rived; we’ll just slide into it in­stead.

But a quiet revo­lu­tion is still a revo­lu­tion. And the ev­i­dence that these gad­gets can ac­tu­ally live up to their promised po­ten­tial - and maybe even be­yond what we’ve fore­seen - is strong. This year more than ever, it feels like we’ve crossed the Ru­bi­con. Soon, there won’t be the need for dis­tin­guish­ing be­tween a ‘‘smart’’ ver­sion of a gad­get and a dumb one at all. – Washington Post

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