Is a Smart Home a Smart Move?

Digital transformation has been at the forefront of many businesses for quite some time, regardless of the size of the company or the market they operate in. More and more resources are invested to make goods and services readily available through various digital platforms nimble enough to provide the end users with options galore. These trends of digital transformation have compelled today’s leaders in small businesses and corporate America to think outside the box. This trend has only been fueled further with the day-to-day dependency on smartphones and devices – a household necessity for todays’ digital workforce and families. Targeted advertising, predictive service delivery, customized recommendations and pinpointed customer relations are all examples of strategies and trends that came into existence due to digital transformation. While there are numerous examples and case studies in the business world outlining this phenomenal shift, one cannot ignore how this trend has hit a homerun in our personal lives. Voice-controlled devices are at the forefront of how our lives have transformed in recent times as they are now a part of the majority of households.

Voice-controlled devices are the nucleus of our lives in a world of digital domesticity. From speakers such as Amazon Echo, which are much more than just speakers, to vacuum cleaners from LG and refrigerators from Samsung that provide the consumer with services and features far beyond the usual expectation. From a research conducted by Salesforce, 42 percent of people would rather talk to their devices rather than type into them and 57 percent believe voice assistants are revolutionary. With such a magnitude of adoption, one must wonder what is the underlying need and necessity these devices are catering to?

One of the most compelling needs from a user standpoint is customer convenience. Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, Google’s Assistant and Microsoft’s Cortana all have few things in common from a technological perspective; however, from a user standpoint they address the ability to empower the devices they support with customer convenience. One could never fathom talking to a speaker or a picture frame to check weather and set up appointments, but that is today’s reality. From setting the temperature on your thermostat to playing your choice of music to sending yourself reminders and alarms to turning your microwave, Barbeque or Instant Pot on at a specific time, these devices aid in accomplishing tasks that would otherwise require manual intervention and time. These voice-controlled devices have additional peripheral devices (Such as Amazon pod) that would even monitor the levels of your essential household items and would recommend and process a reorder via your favorite shopping website for refills without hassle. From setting up appointments to reading email, checking real-time traffic to checking status on the global pandemic, these devices and the underlying services provide us with information through our finger tips.

Apart from customer convenience, there are various other added benefits of using these voice command devices. Accessibility and inclusivity of these devices are breaking down barriers for people with disabilities, whether it is physical, cognitive or sensory. Visually impaired individuals benefit tremendously from the voice interaction with these devices. Since conversations are building blocks of developing rapport, virtual assistants can seamlessly deliver conversational experience and quickly form a bonded connection with the end user. The younger generation specifically enjoys interacting with these devices whether it is for enjoyment and entertainment such as playing their favorite music on digital platforms such as Pandora and Spotify and even uses them as an aid to learn on a myriad of topics as a learning service or platform. 

“One can listen to Beethoven on Amazon Echo while checking their e-learning appointments on iPhone with Siri, and have Google Assistant give a visual description of the week’s weather – All alleviating the dependency on my laptop, which is free for me to work on my research and homework,” quipped my daughter Varnika Venneti, a high school student. That is just one example of the range of possibilities the new generation sees in utilizing these devices and services. From a consumer market standpoint, the expansion of Internet of Things (IoT) has created a diverse variety of smart objects, appliances and accessories. Continuous integration of voice command devices with these IoT devices has created a new market segment, opening up new possibilities for customers to enjoy rich features, save time and hassle and not bother about underlying technological nuances. Smart device advocates also feel voice-command devices have contributed significantly in relieving us from a global problem that we face today – screen dependency. Voice-command devices inherently reduce one’s urge to get to a screen to quickly retrieve information.

With all these advantages, one must wonder just what are the underlying technologies based on which these devices function and what other repercussions could result from such lifestyle-based dependencies. Most voice assistants depend on a “wake word” or a “trigger word” which activates them. “Alexa” for Amazon, “Hey Siri” for Apple and “Hello Google” for Google devices wakes up these devices to go from a passive listening mode to active listening mode. Based on what one would ask after the wake word, the question is formulated and the background technology takes it from there. 

“Once the initiation is done, the subsequent question the end user asks goes through a complex algorithm powered by artificial intelligence and deep machine learning, to quickly and accurately find the best possible answer and is delivered back to the user in milliseconds,” said Harsha Nippani, Senior Solutions Architect at Amazon Web Services (AWS). “There are many teams of data scientists, engineers and machine learning experts that constantly tweak these algorithms to make the outcome as accurate as possible for the end user to benefit from, it’s a constant work in progress,” he said. “The science of voice recognition presents its own set of challenges, such as dialects, accents, tone, etc., and natural language processing technologies are constantly evolving and adjusting to accommodate to these challenges. Each of these vendors has their own proprietary algorithms and data processing and retention capabilities.

With a plethora of cutting-edge technologies and complex algorithms, there are challenges that impact adoption of voice assistants and risks to mitigate. The elephant in the room is “Privacy Invasion.” As with any service that collects data, which in this case are vocal recordings stored in the Cloud, the possibility of data breach is not completely ruled out. Since the data stored by these devices is not completely anonymous, information such as personal account information, location, weather and traffic are tracked and shared in the background.

“The microphones on these devices are constantly active and they are listening actively to conversations, even though you are not speaking to the device actively” said Harsha Nippani from Amazon Web Services. “This does provide an opportunity for privacy invasion, which is a constant concern the vendors are cognizant of and are taking measures to ensure that a breach will not occur.”

Another challenge voice assistants face is the dependency on Wi-Fi connectivity. If one does not have enough bandwidth on their Wi-Fi connectivity, and since these devices are not truly wire-free, portability is a challenge to address too. “I would rather use a computer to obtain the search results on the information I am looking for, as voice assistants rely on language spoken and deliver only one outcome as opposed to multiple options that a Google search can provide me. There is no compelling need.” said Srikanth Akula, a technology professional. Similar thoughts and experiences came in from Joseph Manuto, a USMC Veteran and senior technologist who said, “The heavy reliance on having a noise free environment and the challenges of comprehension of words often throws in random unrelated results from voice assistants.” “I would rather have multiple results for my information queries rather than have inaccurate results driven by AI empowered devices, as it adds complexity and reduces our options for accurate results.”

Nevertheless, there are cases on both fronts as to how good or how cumbersome voice assistants can be. But the bottom line is, like it or not, voice assisted devices are here to stay. The sheer idea of talking to a device to get certain actions done to refill an item to finding information in a heartbeat presents us with immense opportunities both at personal and business level. These devices provide new ways to engage with people, create new brands, enrich our minds, get insights and even allow customized, programmable actions for one who has a penchant to charter those avenues. As Peter Parker (aka Spiderman) quoted, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

Vikram Venneti is a business leader, technology evangelist, tree hugger and food connoisseur. He loves to run and hike and is a dad with a penchant for writing.

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