The rise of virtual assistants

Thorsten Stremlau

Monday 24 April 2017

Not speaking to your PC yet? Lenovo’s Thorsten Stremlau says voice-controlled virtual assistants is the technology that’s on everyone’s lips. Here’s why your company should start conversing with their computer sooner rather than later.

In the past year, a lot of changes have happened in how we interact with computers. Twelve months ago, the likes of Siri, Cortana and Google Assistant were starting to be accepted by consumers, but were still viewed with some suspicion. Now we’re seeing a complete change in attitude – voice interaction with a PC is something that many more corporations and end users are not only comfortable with, but actively looking for, in their daily lives. This opens up all sorts of opportunities, not only in the consumer space, but in the enterprise world too.

Echo chamber

Siri and Cortana might have paved the way, but one of the breakthrough devices was the Amazon Echo speaker, powered by its Alexa personal assistant. It’s enabled with these so-called ‘skills’ that give it all sorts of capabilities. For example, you can unlock and start your car from inside your house, just by speaking to your Echo speaker. Or have your energy use read out to you, so you can see if you need to cut down to keep your bills lower.

You have to stick to a certain syntax, but for the first time we have a device that’s able to respond to almost natural language interaction from a human perspective. It’s so advanced, the artificial intelligence (AI) understands the context of the question and gives you the appropriate response. Ask if you need an umbrella today, for example, and it might say there’s an 80 per cent chance of rain. But ask it what the weather will be like today, and it’ll give you a temperature range as well as the chance of precipitation.

Lenovo’s involvement

Lenovo is making inroads in this space. We’ve launched our own version of the Echo, called the Lenovo Smart Assistant. It costs less than the Echo and has better audio quality, with speakers made by Harman Kardon. But the Alexa smarts are exactly the same. It’s selling very well, because a lot of people want that improved audio quality.

We’ve also announced an Amazon Echo Moto Mod for Motorola smartphones. It’s essentially a version of the Echo Dot – Amazon’s smaller, more affordable Alexa-powered speaker – that you attach to the back of your phone so you interact with the phone just by speaking. It means that while you’re on the move, the whole Amazon environment is just an utterance away. Plus, it gives your phone far-field microphone capabilities – this is a very complex microphone array that’s built into the Amazon Echo and Lenovo Smart Assistant. It distinguishes whether you’re standing right next to it or you’re far away, and filters out ambient noise like traffic or a radio playing in the background, so it’ll still pick out your voice.

Taking care of business

That’s all in the consumer space, but this technology is of huge benefit to corporations too. Windows 10 with Cortana has the ability to do more advanced commands, and you can even interact with Cortana if the device is in a low-power state. So your PC could be sleeping, but you can wake it by speaking to Cortana – maybe by saying ‘good morning’ or giving it instructions on tasks to perform.

Windows 10 is an open environment, which gives companies enormous flexibility to do whatever they need. The Cortana Business Integration Framework lets you use Cortana with other corporate programs like Office 365, your CRM systems, and many more. It lets you optimise Cortana for a business environment.

The future for this technology is very exciting. As the speech interaction becomes more intuitive, you’ll be able to do things like sign in to your PC using your voice, manage entries in a notebook or search for content across your devices (for example, by saying: “Where is that file I accessed at Starbucks last week?”). You can also search in Google or Bing, and set a reminder when you reach a particular location (for example, by saying: “Remind me to email Sarah when I get to conference room H”).

It makes for a much more efficient work space. The only issue is privacy. These devices are now continually listening in on what you say, which is something corporations – both those using them and those selling them – will have to address. They’ll need to be open about what’s being recorded, what’s being stored and how it’s being accessed. They need to reassure customers that their confidential company information remains safe while all these machines are listening in. Once they do that, there’s no limit to where this technology can go.

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