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In 2018, Google CEO Sundar Pichai introduced Google Assistant Duplex at the company’s developer conference. The assistant mimicked realistic and nuanced human speech patterns (complete with “ums” and “ahhs”) by making an appointment for a haircut and reserving a table at a restaurant while conversing fluently with a real person.
Although the audience erupted in enthusiastic applause at the achievement, in the Twitter sphere and beyond, observers were quick to question what they were hearing.
Some called the resemblance “creepy,” and others felt like a deception was in play – with the human on the other end of the line completely unaware that he was speaking with a bot.
Ultimately, the whole episode wasn’t great communication for artificial intelligence or fancy voice technology. But that’s unfortunate because the truth is that voice AI has enormous potential to empower consumers and bring value to companies that deploy it, provided there is a clear understanding of its purpose and limitations. .
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Voice AI in the wild
One of the best examples is ordering food.
Skyrocketing inflation has pushed up costs for restaurateurs, while labor shortages have left them struggling to keep up with customer demand (which has been slow to subside after the lockdown). Some smaller restaurants left the phone ringing, while some larger ones were even forced to make customers wait at the drive-thru, causing frustration.
So they are increasingly turning to voice technology to take over.
It is quite logical. As long as voice technology is sophisticated enough – and you might be surprised how smart it is right now – having voice AI take an order allows employees to continue the important work of preparing tasty and to ensure that the customers of the restaurant have a good life.
In this scenario, no one is fooled – this type of voice AI tends to declare their non-human status if it’s not already obvious. Customers are happy and service industry professionals are supported, not weakened.
Good service, no servants
So how about this idea: rather than each of us having our own personal humanoid Jeeves (as in the Google Duplex scenario), what if different brands and companies had their own assistants that formed a vast ecosystem of voice assistants? In this way, companies could assert their own brand identity and cultivate one-to-one relationships with their customers without intermediaries. For their part, customers could be dealing with a voice AI really knows the goods or services the company has to offer, rather than an Alexa-style assistant trying to navigate its way through.
Restaurant voice assistants, for example, become familiar with the menu. They learn favorite combinations; they can make changes and suggestions; they learn to sell. Why couldn’t this be replicated in the rest of hospitality, retail or even professional services? The answer is: it could, and it is starting to happen.
Rather than thinking about creating intelligent servants of AI, we should start thinking about voice assistants as functional tools that we can repurpose in this way. In the ‘real world’ most of us do not have servants or envoys to negotiate for us, but we do rely on knowledgeable, pleasant and efficient front-line staff. Why not replicate working systems rather than obsolete systems?
I think that’s what we’re going to start doing, and brand and customer experiences will become more vivid and fruitful because of it.
Crucially, it’s not about replacing staff with an army of voice assistants. It’s about giving employees the time and space they need to focus on critical tasks, streamlining cumbersome ordering systems, and helping businesses increase sales. And it’s also about allowing us, as customers, to step away from screens and devices to order in the most natural and human way we know – with our voices.
Zubin Irani is CRO of SoundHound.
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