Rise of the Smart Home Assistants 🤖

The rise of the voice assistants has nothing been short of spectacular. The immense love shown by the general public and the press when covering the next gen smart speakers is on borderline excitement and awe. Even though this field is relatively young by standards of any modern tech assessment, the implications which these products set may very well define the next wave of so called AI powered assistants/devices in the tech industry.

To understand the euphoria when a new AI device is announced or the unfounded paranoia shown when one of the devices malfunctions and leaks data, is nothing short of circling the edge of horizon where excitement is met with equal amounts of hope and fear. For what its worth, these AI powered devices are mostly , at-least on the consumer side, been used to pimp up the humble speaker. Whether its the friendly Alexa, the under-estimated Cortana or the oft used Google Assistant, these virtual assistants have been made popular by making their bases as the speaker, a bluetooth speaker to be precise. However, these virtual assistants started as features or so called additions to increase the value and functionality of smartphones.

Hey Siri!

Lets go back to the one which started this, Apple. Siri started its life as an app sitting inside the App store. The team behind Siri, though small had managed at that time to build an app, or a service per se which could understand responses by people and give responses back in a surprisingly human way. This was enough for Apple to pick up and acquire the app and make it as a full blown feature than a standalone third party app. This meant that in the year 2010, marketing guys at Apple had it almost too easy, since Siri as a feature was so new and never been incorporated in a smartphone. Sure, smart assistants and voice recognition have existed for years, but Siri truly paved the way for a real conversation level feature for the mainstream population. This was followed by the Apple-halo effect due to which several other companies now wanted in on the smart assistant game. 🏃‍

Speakers are the next gold rush 🏆

While a smart assistant seems like a natural extension for a company like Google whose main objective is answering people’s queries, conveying that information via voice seemed almost too natural. Google had been toying with the idea of voice feedback led search results for years which is why they even embedded the mic icon in the search box. Microsoft came up with Cortana which was named after a character from the famed Halo series. Cortana which came to windows recently even guides newbies when setting up Windows for the first time. Amazon came up with Alexa and in a very predictable set of events, promptly geared it towards voice shopping. In theory Amazon Echo is a product which people buy to help them buy more products from Amazon in an easier way. Its like a trojan horse to the universe of Amazon products, where Bezos is the gleeing emperor. On the other end of spectrum, we have Bixby which aims to be the Siri of Samsung devices. While Siri in reality sets a low bar for accuracy or usefulness outside the Apple eco system, Bixby unfortunately fails to deliver even that sub par experience. 🤦

Bixby — The epitome of forced intelligence

When all these things are taken in unison, its easy to understand that, the smart assistant market is still in a nascent stage with huge scope for improvement. While Amazon seems to have an edge in the speaker game due to their ecommerce roots, Google is catching up with them real fast. Cortana meanwhile exists on a lonely, yet well engineered speaker from Harman Kardon. The HomePod device from Apple is a deliberately locked down device with no obvious benefits. HomePod with its amazing guts and sound quality still has its system locked down to interact with only Apple devices, which is a shame since their speaker is one of the nicer sounding speakers in the category. 😏

The smart speakers are in a place where cellphones were present when the Nokia 6600 was launched. Back then it seemed Nokia was untouchable and Blackberry ruled the roost of corporates. Microsoft’s own Windows Mobile OS had a stupidly complex UI since Microsoft firmly believed in shoving the concept of Windows in all devices they manufactured. If you were an analyst back in 2004, you would probably hail Blackberry’s new 800 series of phones to be absolute pinnacle of productivity. You would also describe the mobile market as:
1. Crowded 🚫
2. Duopoly by Nokia and Blackberry on the lower and higher ends of the market resp. 💪
3. Touchscreen devices were a niche and almost too futuristic. 🔮

Aim for smartness they said.

More importantly, you would be far more likely to dismiss the cellphone market as a saturated yet thriving market. Apple came and changed all those opinions and made pecking on a piece of glass an everyday activity. 💁

Looking at the smart speakers market, few things stand out:

  1. Google? Microsoft? Apple? Amazon? 🧐
    One big name is missing. Yeah, Facebook! While Facebook has demonstrated that it is and it will enter/copy/release/develop any features it deems worthy of its competitors, it has surprisingly held back from launching any voice assistant. Facebook has some of the best AI related tools and is the driving force behind Torch(Now PyTorch). It counts Yann Le Cunn as its director of AI Research team and yet it has no smart assistant on the horizon. 🙇
  2. The big Chinese players like Huawei, Tencent and Baidu have yet to come up with a voice assistant.
  3. Most voice assistants primarily target the English speaking demographic.
  4. Smart Speakers like Amazon Echo plus have smart hub built in which allows it to interact with other smart devices using the popular Zigbee protocol. The smart speaker with a smart assistant would probably transmogrify into some sort of central command switch for smart home devices in near future. 👁️
Checkmate son.

Unsurprisingly, the privacy ramifications for the smart speakers have been severe and something deeply looked into by everyone. Having a device which listens to everything you say is borderline creepy and when it malfunctions, is bound to cause paranoia. Two recent events one involving Google Home Mini and Amazon Echo, highlight the significance of privacy and the consequences of malfunctions in such devices. In the former, the Google Mini device apparently was recording everything it was hearing and sending it back to Google servers. In the latter, Alexa apparently send a random voice recording to one of the user’s contacts. Its easy to see, how sensitive and demanding the security implications of these devices need to be. This also highlights the unbelievably lax/ non existent laws around dealing with such incidents. 😰

Its fair to say that this domain is ripe for disruption.(As the silicon valley pundits would say, Disruption!)
What are your thoughts on this topic? 😃

Cat Tax. Swing with the kitties.

If you liked the article show some love on the clap button! 👏
Loved it? Buy me a coffee! ☕
Bitcoin Address: 186LZNFgGCMfa3x2MmyJY5rMVu7aFHxxW5
Ethereum Address: 0x552410434f2E74Ccf13038325Fc55f0DAB8Bb772