Voice and AI: The New Man-to-Machine UI

On Tuesday, my colleague Bob O’Donnell wrote a good piece entitled “Voice-Based Computing with Digital Assistants” and gave a good overview of one of the hottest areas in tech these days.

But I wanted to add that a major battle in voice and AI is brewing between Google, Apple, Microsoft and Amazon. Google has Google Now. Microsoft has Cortona and Apple has Siri. Most recently, Amazon joined the fray with Alexa on their Echo device platform. I see this as the next major battle that will be fought to try and get more people hooked on one of these platforms.

Apple kicked off the battle when they introduced Siri, although Google had Google now in the works and followed suit pretty quickly. Interestingly, Microsoft also had a lot of work internally on voice UIs and an AI engine and took the next big step in making Cortana a voice interface embedded in both Windows Mobile and, more recently, Windows desktop. Amazon did not have a mobile or desktop play so they had to create a device to deliver a voice/AI device, which comes through their Echo system.

While each of these big four companies have significant investments in this technology, Viv, the folks behind Siri, recently debuted a 3rd party approach to adding voice and AI for use in a range of other applications. It was introduced at the recent TechCrunch Disrupt event in Brooklyn. In an interview on stage with TechCrunch Editor-in-Chief Matthew Panzarino, Viv CEO Dag Kittlaus discussed what differentiated this assistant from the dozens of others:

“Kittlaus detailed the real secret sauce of Viv was something called “dynamic program generation,” which allows the AI-powered assistant to understand intent and generate a program itself to best answer the query. Viv is a global platform that enables developers to plug into and create an intelligent, conversational interface to anything. It is the simplest way for the world to interact with devices, services and things everywhere. Viv is taught by the world, knows more than it is taught, and learns every day. Instead of having to write every code instructed, you’re really just describing what you want it to do,” said Kittlaus. “The whole idea of Viv is that developers can go in and build any experience that they want.”

I have been studying the role of AI in UIs for about five years and have always felt that, if the technology ever matured and became powerful enough to deliver a more conversational and contextual approach to the man-machine interface, it could be the most viable way people will interact with technology in the future. Now, thanks to more powerful processors, advances in Natural Language Interfaces (NLI), Neural Networks, and deep learning techniques, AI-based voice interfaces are set to become one of the most important ways all of us will interact with technology in the future.

While Viv is the new kid on the block, I have found there are already some powerful alternatives to what Viv is offering and the big 4 are already delivering in their voice UI solutions. At CES this year, I was given a demo of an industrial strength version of this technology from a UK-based company called Artificial Solutions.

While not well known in the US, this company is already a powerhouse in this area and provides major voice-based AI solutions to firms like AT&T, Shell Oil, Ikea, Credit Suisse and dozens of top companies. Their AI-based voice solution is called TENEO and already delivers some of the best conversational level voice interactions with a computer available.

Teneo can understand multiple pieces of information given in a single sentence. It can remember facts and learn about user’s preferences and ask questions of its own as a natural part of a conversation. It can even prompt users for additional information required to carry out a task. Like VIV, it can be integrated into back-end and third-party systems. It even follows users around as they switch devices and remembers the conversation. One of its more impressive features is it predicts a user’s needs based on contextual information and, for the companies that use it, it can provide detailed analysis of conversations in near-real time.

I have not tested VIV and have only viewed their short demo so I can’t attest to how it compares to what Artificial Solutions already offers. But, in testing Teneo and its conversational capabilities, it appears Teneo is already a powerful platform that has a solid 3rd party following. To date, their focus has been mainly on the enterprise and international accounts but I understand they plan to become much more aggressive in the US market. In the end, Artificial Solutions will probably become Viv’s main competitor to try and deliver Voice and AI-based solutions to all types of applications and services in the near future.

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Tim Bajarin

Tim Bajarin is the President of Creative Strategies, Inc. He is recognized as one of the leading industry consultants, analysts and futurists covering the field of personal computers and consumer technology. Mr. Bajarin has been with Creative Strategies since 1981 and has served as a consultant to most of the leading hardware and software vendors in the industry including IBM, Apple, Xerox, Compaq, Dell, AT&T, Microsoft, Polaroid, Lotus, Epson, Toshiba and numerous others.

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