The great thing about the future is that no one can know exactly what’s going to happen. That’s why the hype that prediction articles create, especially around technology, can never be taken completely seriously.
There are many sweeping, ambitious and sometimes contradictory forecasts doing the rounds each year, mentioning AI, VR and sexy futuristic outputs of the technologies that we consume every day. The exciting future of voice seems more realistic than it has in previous years. Since the new raft of voice applications were released, starting with Siri in 2010, it's had time to mature. Relevant use cases have been realised and very quickly, platforms like Alexa, Google Home and, to a lesser extent Apple’s homePod, have poured into our living rooms at a rate that is only increasing.
As users become more accustomed to searching and performing tasks with their voice, the opportunities behind the technology are going to become widespread. Here are a few reasons why we can all be optimistic about voice platforms in 2020:
1. In-skill purchasing will create a stronger ecosystem
In-skill purchasing (ISP) is now live within Alexa and will soon be rolled out to Google. Users may see this as just another way to waste money, but what ISP could mean to voice is huge. Being able to purchase through speech alone will open up the platform to companies interested in financial return. There has ironically not been a lot of noise about this so far, but it has the potential to create ecosystems similar to the App Store and Google Play.
In 2020 payment gateways, flows and frameworks will be standardised further for voice, and will spur creative brands to look at voice as an avenue to sell their products, and create a more convenient service for their users.
2. Skills will see more marketing budget
Over the last five years, many brands and start-ups have learned that launching a mobile app is not enough on its own. It needs advertising and a marketing campaign. You need to shout about it, or lose it to the depths of the App-sea. The same is true of skills and with the total number of skills in the Alexa library already hitting 70,000, it’s critical companies understand the importance of marketing and release strategy when launching a skill.
In 2020, we’re going to see and more importantly hear about the Skills that we want as consumers.
3. Voice assistants will be on the move
No longer are voice assistants constrained to just our homes. In the last year, we’ve seen them in glasses, as driving assistants and now in ear buds. Apple Airpods already offer users access to Siri, and Sony's Bluetooth earphones integrate with both Alexa and Google assistant. With Amazon Echo Buds and Google’s Pixel buds both due for release this year, we feel that voice will become part of the fashion zeitgeist in 2020.
Further than fashion, ear assistants such as these will once again change human behaviour. Just as we’ve all looked confusingly at city workers on electric scooters this year, in 2020 we’ll stare at people on the street talking to themselves, asking the space in front of them what the weather will be like in the afternoon, or where and when their next meeting is.
Though a lot of people will be amused by such developments, we believe such as a development could be a big game-changer for the time-poor. And watch out for headlines of closely packed commuters asking questions, only for others nearby to get the answers.
4. Assisted living
Voice is creating new levels of accessibility for people that need help the most. Platforms have realised what in which voice assistants can be used by people who need help with the internet, changing television channels and remembering when to take medication.
Use cases and development in accessibility have gone even further. Alexa is currently being used within care homes. Smart connected devices are reminding elderly people to do everything from drinking water to helping them communicate with nurses and keeping them more connected to family members.
Certain developments have gone even further, such as this new Alexa Skill, Show and Tell, which along with visual recognition, helps blind people identify the groceries and items in their house that they’re holding, enabling them to cook and live their lives a lot easier. More than anything, voice assistants are adding a voice in sometimes lonely houses and rooms. We think in 2020, with the utilisation of AI, we’ll continue to read warming stories of how voice is truly empowering those who are less able.
Though as we continue to look for problems to solve, we have to make sure they are not replacing the human relationships that so many people in care understand and count on, as this article showing the distress voice technology can create in dementia sufferers when used to help out with everyday tasks.
5. Bigger and better data will make us act smarter
In 2020, voice technology will make us all a lot quicker, more effective and efficient, especially in collaborative settings. This capability will not necessarily be driven by unique skills and applications of voice, but by the connection to big data. As Bruce Jaffes from Donut Domains explains: "We are on the verge of accessing enterprise data through voice where you can ask a question in basic spoken language and have a platform to retrieve the answers -- all integrated within enterprise applications. So, within Slack, you could ask, 'What are Germany unit sales trends' and immediately receive back the charts and data."
Further to this, in 2020, we’ll see more voice-activated technology in the workplace, When integrated with automation, more day-to-day tasks from coffee orders for meetings to finding information and documentation will bring us resolutions faster.
6. Diversity is still an issue
In 2020, diversity and the bias presented by artificial intelligence remain a problem. Alexa and Google Assistant are 30% less likely to understand non-American accents and the average accuracy rate of a white male using Alexa is 92% - a mixed-race female is 69%.
These numbers are never great reading, and maybe explained that a large proportion of the workforce behind the technology are white men - debate on how AI bias is created will continue, a tendency sometimes referred to as the creators’ bias.
There is hope. Now that voice technology has matured, the BBC is in the process of launching a voice assistant. As a part of the trialing and prototyping of their service they have invited staff from around the world to feed in to train the programme to read different accents. It will be interesting to see if these failure rate statistics have changed at all in a year’s time.
7. Privacy will still be an issue but will be better understood
Similar to AI, a lot of customers have shown security fears around the idea that Google or Amazon may be listening in to your bedroom conversation. And then there’s the prospect of laser hacking, a capability where a person can trick your device into doing something by shining a laser pen at it. Google, have also responded to the skepticism behind home assistants, announcing recently at CES that if a user says “Hey Google, are you listening to me?”, they will now get a deep link to privacy settings in the Home mobile app, educating them as to how their privacy is considered.
8. Healthcare will become more personal
In 2019, Voice-activated technology has been rolled out into the medical world, with many solutions automating or simplifying communication between patients and providers. Intelligent voice-activated, bots such as Aiva and Merit.ai (amongst many others) can save clinical staff valuable time and complete tasks such as appointment scheduling and reminders in an outpatient setting, or care team coordination in an inpatient setting.
The one place where voice is held back is patient treatment, where surveyed patients feel it lacks a human touch. Organisations such as NHS Direct and Babylon have had great success in creating successful services through chat interfaces, but as of yet have not had similar success on voice platforms. As voice cements itself more into our consciousness, we feel we’ll see more exploration from both companies tackling the issue of making voice services feel more human.
The rapid pace of change in voice technology and sheer scale of Voice startups working in the healthcare space lead us to believe that 2020 will be a year where voice will become more common-place as an option for patient treatment and engagement. As Alexa and Google home cement their place in more living rooms, and doctors and their budgets become more stretched, we’ll see more solutions for issues such as managing chronic heart disease, medication reminders visual impairment and initial diagnosis.
Though maybe not in 2020, it would not be unthinkable that Google and Amazon partner to develop a diagnosis and triaging service that helps people understand their ailments and afflictions before contacting medical professionals. As a native service to voice devices, something like this could have a dramatic impact on the pressure and workload of hospitals and doctors’ surgeries alike.
9. We’ll have conversations with our bank again
Voice technology offers banks another opportunity to become more effective and create stronger customer relationships with customers. Though not many examples of voice banking have surfaced yet, companies such as Credit Union are beginning to make progress. Most notably, they are partnering with Amazon to work on how banking interactions can be performed through voice assistants.
In 2020, we’ll begin to see some of these services come to light, and expect cash transfer and security innovation at the front of these. Ultimately having a conversation with your Alexa could become your means of banking, coming back around from recent times when your only option was to go into a branch and have a conversation with a customer service representative.
Excitingly, the introduction of voice and ISP technology into headphones may provide yet another leap in opportunity, allowing users to do tasks on the move. In my opinion this maybe an area to watch - as the technology advances it is very likely that we will see more people using voice whilst walking down the street. I believe this will create the biggest behaviourally shift - it will become a familiar place to see people seemingly talking to themselves on the street.
Having a structured and simple payment capability in ISP, creates a mechanism for brands to earn from voice skills.
2020 is a more exciting year for voice than any that have come before.