Voice assistants: Moving from party tricks to practical applications

In this week's Voices Carry, CI expert Brent Leary riffs on the different practical applications that conversational interfaces can have today. This is the real world, after all. They aren't just cute any more.
Written by Brent Leary, Contributor

Video: CRM playaz with Pega's Jeff Nicholson at PegaWorld 2018

One of the most interesting developments from last month's Google I/O event was the Google Duplex demo, where Google Assistant actually made a call on behalf of a human to make a beauty appointment... meaning Google Assistant called a human and had a conversation that led to an appointment being booked. Now that's a cool trick (some folks might not characterize it as such, but that's another story). It's not available right this minute, so it kind of has a feel of being a gimmick or party trick that grabs your attention for a while before we move on to the next thing. And that party trick theme came up last week when the subject of voice assistants came up at Pegaworld in Las Vegas -- the party trick capitol of the world.

Read also: What is Google Duplex? (CNET)?

The CRM playaz -- aka Paul Greenberg and yours truly -- caught up with Pega VP of CRM Product Marketing Jeff Nicholson for an impromptu conversation at the conference. We covered a lot of ground in the time we had with Jeff, including some bragging about the Patriots winning five Super Bowls, which was countered by the Yankees' 27 World Series championships, which left me and my Rams' one Super Bowl win pretty speechless during this time. But when I asked Jeff about voice assistants and their role in business, things got pretty interesting, as he feels that we're currently in the era of party tricks; and that we need to get into an era of practical applications within the next year or two -- or it might only be a flash in the pan. Finally, Jeff feels the only thing really holding it back are people coming up with serious use cases.

To see the full conversation, you can check it out above.

Now, there's a lot to agree with in Jeff's observations about voice. And many vendor executives I've talked to over the past 12 to 18 months or so agree with him. It's easy to see why, as the things like ordering a pizza or starting your car brings a lot of attention and hype to Alexa and Google Assistant. But a deeper look beneath the surface reveals the move from party tricks to practical applications is already taking place; and the charge is being led by folks who were drawn in by the party tricks but are now taking the inspiration born from those experiences into their workplace after the party is over.

Below are a just a few examples of how quickly that transition is happening in areas that are no laughing matter.

From Ordering Pizza to City Government Call Center

When Pega's Nicholson said voice-first needed to go from parlor trick to practical purpose for things to take off in the industry, he perfectly described the path Alexa took in reaching the city of Albuquerque's call center. As told via a piece by my buddy Don Fluckinger, it was the city's digital engagement specialist Matt Maez's ability to easily reorder his favorite Domino's pizza that led to the creation of an Alexa skill that addresses residents' 150 FAQs.

Read also: Google Duplex beat the Turing test: Are we doomed?

The skill was rolled out last month as a soft launch and a a bigger push is expected to take place later this year, with a goal of reducing call volume by 15 percent in two years. But there are concerns about scaling issues as Alexa interactions increase over time. However, in the long run, based on AWS' track record, it's expected to be less of a concern. And I suspect that using voice assistants will become a viable way to scale self-service capabilities that will become generally attractive as time goes on.

Senior Communities

This one hits close to home having a mother currently residing in a senior independent living community, and I use an Amazon Echo Show to talk daily to her. But these devices are gaining traction in senior communities for more than just that. Touchtown, a company specializing in resident engagement solutions used by more than 1,200 retirement homes and senior living communities, offers services aimed at improving resident wellness and experience via computers, tablets, or smartphones. Now, Touchtown is offering residents the ability to easily find important information using Alexa and Echo devices. For example:

  • Activities: "What is going on tomorrow?"
  • Dining Menus: "What is for lunch today?"
  • Announcements: "Are there any announcements today?"

One of Touchtown's customers, North Florida Retirement Village, recently beta-tested the Alexa integration with a few residents and found it made immediate impact with scheduled reminders for taking medication. Using voice commands also makes it easy for seniors with declining motor skills. In fact, because of the initial positive response from the beta, North Florida is in the process of constructing smart apartments for future residents that will allow seniors to control lights, fans, televisions, and other devices with their voices.

Erica, How Much Money Do I Have?

Alexa and Google Assistant aren't the only game in town (and no I'm not talking about Siri). While they can do many things on your behalf, they can't get into your Bank of America accounts for the time being... but Erica can. Erica is a financial AI assistant designed for BofA customers use their smartphone to manage their personal bank accounts. After activating Erica by tapping on the app, a user can ask her, for example, to lock their debit card after losing it or having it stolen, transfer funds between accounts, and look up past transactions. You can also schedule meetings with specialists at a branch, schedule payments, and even send money to people via Zelle. You can also ask for your past five purchases from Amazon.

Read also: Google Duplex: What should businesses expect? (TechRepublic)

According to Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan last month, 450,000 people were using Erica, and the BofA app had logged more than one million interactions. While the things she can do are relatively easy to start with, over time Erica will learn what's important to customers and will perform more complex tasks to improve the customer experience.

Suki -- Alexa for Doctors

Focused on simplifying the laborious process of medical notetaking, Suki is an AI-powered, voice-enabled digital assistant for doctors, allowing them to spend more time treating patients than filling out forms. Having recently announced raising $20 million in funding (with Salesforce's Marc Benioff being among the lead investors), the company is comprised of engineers, technologists, and clinicians from a who's who of companies, including Apple, 23andMe, Google, Salesforce, and Oracle.

According to a company press release, Suki is personalized at the individual doctor level to remove friction from day-to-day activities, but it's also built to scale. And even though doctors spend a lot hiring workers to manage the accuracy of patient records, that still doesn't insure those records are in good shape. But company founder Punit Soni says Suki will be able to:

"Distill a doctor's conversation with a patient into an actionable plan, based on the doctor's known preferences and clinical practice guidelines. The doctor can tell Suki, 'I'm concerned this patient has the flu,' and Suki will take the initiative to document the conversation in the proper format, with a proposed plan of care based on the way that doctor typically treats a patient with suspected flu. And if the doctor prescribes medication, Suki will stage and route the order through the health record system."

These examples represent a rapidly growing number of projects that illustrate the "party tricks to practical applications" transition that is taking place. And Jeff Nicholson's suggestion that the transition needs to be led by practitioners out there in the trenches is exactly what's happening -- in important areas like health, banking, senior living, and government services. All this adds up to an era of voice eventually crossing the chasm into the mainstream of even the most important areas of life. We're still early days as most of what's going on currently are beta projects. And important areas of concern like privacy and security, both from a consumer and enterprise perspectives, need to be entirely flushed out and thoroughly tested. But we're moving in that direction, and I can't wait to have my voice assistant call my barber to set up my next cut.

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