In the meantime, the ‘Hands off’ principle has become firmly established in numerous areas of our lives outside the car. In the nineteen-eighties, the light switch that could be turned on and off by clapping was celebrated as a symbol of the modern age. Today, light switches do what we tell them in words. All you need is a trigger phrase like ‘OK Google’ or ‘Hey Alexa’ to activate assistance systems like Google Home or Amazon Echo. Then you formulate a command ‘Turn on the living room lights’ in the same breath and, within seconds, the room is bathed in light.
As this simple example shows, a single spoken command is all it needs to alter reality. Should this technology become established, it will be only a matter of time until touch input devices disappear. When all you have to do is just say one or two words, who still needs a button to turn on the radio or select the floor you want in a lift?
Canines and commands.
The first voice-controlled assistants already existed 32,000 years ago. Domesticated wolves were the first helpers of the human race to respond to verbal commands: dogs. When it comes to communication, there’s hardly a difference between those Palaeolithic canines and their digital successors – after all, we still bark our commands to Siri, Cortana, Alexa, DingDong, Hound or Google Assistant. They obey our wishes and can bring what we need, for instance by recording appointments and notes, suggesting best routes to a destination or by playing the music we wish to hear. In view of this, it’s only a matter of time until we can conduct dialogues with intelligent speakers – like Kirk, Spock, and the rest of the crew do with the ship’s computer of the Starship Enterprise. All it needs is a smidgen of artificial intelligence (AI) – and enormous amounts of input in the form of vocalised language.
Robin has already warmed up the Batmobile.
In use, voice-controlled assistants must not only merge smoothly and seamlessly into conversation. Above all, they must be intellectually giants, permanently on call and must provide answers that are on the mark. Voice-controlled assistants must be much more than simple ‘Bots’ that carry out pre-programmed routines. They must possess the ability to think independently and reach conclusions in real time. If Dr. Watson’s deductive powers had been only as precise as the results provided by Google, Sherlock Holmes would have fired him years ago. After all, what a detective, fictional or real, expects from his assistant is concrete answers to questions, and not endless lists of possibly relevant clues. Robin must be able to warm up the Batmobile while thinking about how to get to the scene of the crime in Gotham City. The Google Assistant already can.
For example, chats on Google’s Pixel Phone are already analysed in the background by Google Assistant. For example, the software automatically converts references to events and planned journeys into hotel bookings, calendar updates or tickets and makes them available to the user on demand. Intelligent assistants can only act on the data provided by the user when they also have access to information from the outside world. Google Assistant doesn’t only access more than a billion terms, it is also able to decrypt the context between all these items of information. What’s more, the software is even able to interpret the sound of the human voice.
The ability to empathise will soon no longer be limited exclusively to members of the human race. If this were to become a reality, would it be good or bad? In the most-absurd-case scenario, people could fall in love with their digital assistants – just what happens in the dystopian movie drama ‘Her’. In the best case, we could go through life with a virtual intelligence at our side that identifies our emotional states and makes appropriate suggestions. In the car, that could go something like this: ‘You seem to be under pressure – don’t you think it might be a good idea to drive a little more carefully. Should I activate Cruise Control for you?’, or ‘Hey, today’s your wedding anniversary. I already booked you a table for two at your favourite restaurant – should I think up an excuse for getting your wife to meet you there?’
OK, that is all pretty far-fetched. Nevertheless, it does illustrate the kinds of things Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon, DingDong and Google are working on. The virtual assistant of the future will be the buddy at eye-level who accompanies you wherever you go. That’s why they can already be found in smartphones or intelligent speakers and (he, she or it) can be called on to help around the clock with all sorts of apps. They are interfaces that communicate with your light switches just as well as with your car or your wallet.
Keyword ‘Conversational Commerce’: Voice-controlled assistants are currently in the process of kicking mobile payment models into an entirely new dimension. Because, if it becomes possible to complete PayPal transactions solely with verbal commands, PIN numbers and credit cards will become a thing of the past. If and when identities can be validated by voice alone, the opportunities laid out before us would be almost infinite.
Will cars be opened and started by the owner’s voice instead of a key? Will we be able to vote at the next general election with the help of our voice-controlled assistant? Instead of a birth certificate, will every child have a personal voice-controlled assistant that can communicate with the surviving relatives after passing away at a ripe old age?
The battle of the assistants.
Only the future can answer these open questions. One thing is certain – the world’s big concerns believe in the potentials of voice-controlled assistants. Since the launch of Amazon Echo in 2013, Amazon has sold an estimated 3 million devices. With the launch of Echo Dots, the plan is to create a more attractively priced alternative to competitors like Google Home. Mark Zuckerberg intends to personally programme an assistant for his own home and will be granted exclusive rights to the voice of Iron Man in return. With the interfaces of its ‘HomeKit’ platform, Apple places the control of household appliances from iPhones and iPads in the hands of Siri. BTW: Samsung acquired Viv only a few months ago.
In a future dominated by voice-controlled assistants, hands-on input devices like the computer mouse and keyboards will very probably disappear. Should monitors also disappear, we must ask ourselves whether this makes the Google business model untenable and obsolete. After all, how will a concern that currently makes a large proportion of its profits from advertising in and around search results continue to generate revenue? ‘It’s not something we worry about’, ensures Google boss Sundar Pichai. The initial aim is to be useful to users, business opportunities will arise as things progress.
But how can advertisers generate awareness for their products or services when smart assistants deliver single, precise answers instead of numerous potential answers and little bits of advertising – and that without any additional information? The current culture of ‘Phone Centricity’ will very probably be followed closely by ‘Voice Centricity’. Whoever ultimately dominates the segment will possess the power to determine and dictate the business models of everyone else.