The rise of intelligent assistants
I embarked on a 30 day blogging challenge to restore my passion for writing (more about it here). Please sign up to my newsletter to receive the latest updates. This was day nine.
Today I’d like to cover Intelligent Assistants. Perhaps this is cheating a bit, because it’s a post I originally published on Medium on June 22nd. Then I had played with my first two home assistants (Amazon Echo I bought for my mom and a Google Home I received as a gift) and realised the potential these devices have not only in the home, but very soon also in the car and office.
This year, 35.6 million Americans will use a voice-activated assistant at least once a month, doubling last year’s figure, forecasts eMarketer. I don’t normally like to predict things, but here’s one: Home assistants are here to stay.
Home assistants (connected speakers and screens used at home) will become mainstream and will join the list of basic appliances for the home.
It will be partly contributed by rapid decline in prices and bundles with mobile operators, cable /ISP providers etc. The manufacturers will just want you to have one. The use case will start as basic: they will power shopping for the home, digital media plays (images, videos, music, podcasts) and perhaps be the hub for managing all other connected appliances.
Amazon, Apple, Google, Microsoft, Samsung, Alibaba already have a play in the space. Who’s next?
I predict that Facebook will come out with a home assistant in the next year, based on Mark’s pet project “Jarvis” (learn more about it here). The product will either be Facebook made hardware (maybe by someone from the Oculus team?) or a powerful digital app for Google Home, Apple’s Homepod and Amazon Echo/ Alexa. Microsoft will eventually launch one too, who knows, Maybe Twitter will have its own flavour with breaking news alerts and real-time updates: highlights from your sports games, live streaming and TV reminders. Of course, soon enough we’ll find the cheap Chinese version at Walmart.
What’s at stake for the large tech companies? Data primarily, but also premium subscriptions and engagement. The first thing you’re asked when installing Google Home is to connect to a music service. There are currently only two options: Google Music (one month free, £9.99 thereafter) or Spotify (you must have a paid subscription to use it on Google Home). Google will be adding Soundcloud and Deezer soon, as announced on Google I/O in May. There’s no option to connect to YouTube, because it’s free. Same goes for the Echo: unless you’re a Prime subscriber, you’ll get limited usability with the Echo, but paying £79.99 unlocks TV, Music and other content.
Update August 22nd – APK Teardown of the 7.10 Google app reveals that Google is working on‘Bisto’ – headphones that run Google Assistant https://9to5google.com/2017/08/21/google-app-7-10-reveals-that-bisto-are-headphones-that-run-google-assistant-apk-teardown/
Apple just joined the market with the HomePod, and is trying to differentiate on the quality of the speaker and the beauty of the design. You can see the differences in this helpful chart by Business Insider:
Amazon, the pioneer in the space, recently introduced Amazon Echo Showand added a screen to the speaker, as well as new capabilities like Alexa calling (Google just announced hands-free calling from Google Home at Google IO in May). Google is likely to follow with its own screen product shortly, but for now it’s focusing on connecting Google Home to the TV and showing content on the TV using voice commands. Google is already trying to catch up with the Echo’s 10,000 skills.
On July 24th (about a month after originally publishing this post), my prediction came true! Facebook is rumoured to be working on a smart speaker with a 15 inch touch screen, according to Digitimes. The news were leaked though sources from the “upstream supply chain”. Instead of voice recognition functionality, the company will focus more on image display. The development of Facebook’s intelligent assistant is being handled by Facebook’s Building 8, under the leadership of Regina Dugan, former Google vice president of advanced technology and projects (Google ATAP) and veteran of DARPA. More on Techcrunch.
The Facebook smart speaker received a further boost yesterday, with the announcement of Facebook’s acquisition of Ozlo, a self described index of knowledge about the real world. Users can ask Ozlo’s bot questions and its AI-powered assistant can quickly answer thanks to “a knowledge graph containing over 2 billion entities”. This technology will no doubt be instrumental to power the new Facebook Home Assistant. You’ve read it here first folks! Ozlo will be joining the Messenger team. More on Business Insider.
On July 3rd, Alibaba announced its own Alexa competitor which only speaks Chinese addressing the local Chinese Market.
The Tianmao JinglingX1 (Mandarin for “Tmall Genie”), offers voice-control over other connected smart home devices as well as on-demand weather, news updates, and streaming music. The Tmall Genie can also order products from Alibaba’s Tmall online shopping site. Amazon does not currently offer Chinese-language support for its Echo device.
On July 4th news came out that Samsung is said to be making a smart speaker powered by its digital assistant Bixby. While Samsung already has a line of smart speakers, today they can only play music. Needless to say that this future smart assistant device will face steep competition from the get go, as Samsung is coming late to the party.
Microsoft and Harman Kardon
On May 8th, a leak confirmed that Microsoft is also coming out with the Invoke speaker, a Cortana-powered smart speaker for the home and the car in partnership with tier one supplier to the automotive industry, Harman Kardon. The Invoke speaker will include 360-degree sound, Skype calling, and the ability to ask Cortana questions. Microsoft announced the product on May 8th, and it will be available this fall. More about it on the Verge.
On July 26th, Xiaomi announced a $45 smart speaker, called Mi AI. The Verge points out that it’s $130 cheaper than Amazon Echo. the six-microphone Mi AI Speaker features a digital assistant and lets users control IoT devices from Xiaomi and select third-parties; available in China from August; unclear if or when it will launch it other markets.
Xiaomi MI AI speaker — costs $130 less than Amazon Echo
Where is the Intelligent Assistant market going?
AI powered assistant, always on, connected to devices… sounds familiar? The connected speakers of today, will be the control hub for the smart home of the future, replacing our use of phones at home and perhaps being the predecessors of home robots. Think about it, if the Robot can fulfil our every request, stream in HD, chat with your pets, clean and run errands around the house, we’re pretty close to that already. In fact, an early version is already here: take a look at Kuri, by Mayfield Robotics.
That said, there are still significant limitations in the voice human-machine interface, namely that we still find it a bit awkward talking to a device, especially in public. As AI improves along with voice recognition and the ability of these machines to understand accents and increase the functionality, I can imagine my kids growing with smart assistants in a natural way, and continue to use them in the car and home throughout the day. The new search interface may not be a google homepage/app.
Update (August 30th) — Amazon and Microsoft partner to integrate Alexa and Cortana in surprise collaboration: “It’s a surprise move by both companies, and comes just as Microsoft is preparing to launch a Cortana speaker with Harman Kardon and push its digital assistant into cars, thermostats, and more devices. “