Hey Siri, how will I feel next Tuesday?

Apple’s bumbling voice assistant is just a friendly face for a transformative technology.

Apple, iOS, Siri, HomePod, voice assistants, Ovum, Cortana, Assistant, Alexa

Voice assistants such as Apple’s Siri have been a bit of a giggle in their infancy. This is about to change as AI gets smarter, contextual intelligence greater and the augmentation of human capacity through their use reaches different parts of life.

We’re reaching critical mass

Siri, Alexa, Assistant, Cortana – none of these systems is perfect, some are less perfect, and all the big names in this technology need to wake up and act on the privacy implications of their use.

That means recordings shouldn’t be kept, what recordings do exist shouldn’t be connected to individual humans, and no one other than you and your robot should ever be able to know what you asked.

This just seems to be common sense.

However, technology improves, privacy awareness grows and even the biggest surveillance capitalists seem to have a slightly less of a tin ear to these concerns than they did even a year ago.

They need to. Accenture claims 83% of consumers will share their data in exchange for more personalized experiences, but only if businesses are transparent about how their data is used. That’s certainly Apple’s aim, despite a blatant recent error of judgement.

Right now, around 111.8 million people in the U.S. are already using a voice assistant at least monthly, according to recently published research from eMarketer. “Voice-control technology has officially moved out of the early-adopter phase and into the mainstream,” the report claims.

Consider the evidence

There are hundreds of millions of devices in use today that can handle voice queries and controls: billions of smartphones, millions of tablets (particularly iPads), devices powered by Alexa, Siri, Assistant and more.

We wear voice assistants on our wrist, use them in high-end cars, and may even speak to one when we call our bank.

  • Over a third (33.8%) of the U.S population is using voice assistants at least monthly, and this number will reach 36.6% by 2021.
  • eMarketer also claims there will be 77.6 million smart speakers in use in the U.S. this year.
  • Ovum says there will be more voice assistants on the planet than people by 2021.

What are we using these things for?

Amazon claims you can use voice to transact hundreds of tasks with Alexa. Apple’s Shortcuts app means it can also claim to do a huge variety of tasks with Siri.

While the range of things you can use voice assistants for is increasing quickly, the tasks we transact most seem to reflect an earlier stage in voice assistant evolution. We use these things to get directions, make calls, handle music playback and to find local stores (hence the important of local search optimization for most enterprises).

What will we use them for?

A recent World Economic Forum report offers interesting insights into how voice assistants will become more personalized in the next evolution of the tech. They will become more responsive to age, gender and accent; later, they will become capable of discerning emotional states. (Don't neglect that Apple has already invested in hiring counsellors and therapists to help develop Siri.)

For a glimpse of what comes next, take a look at Gatebox. That company is developing a voice assistant that offers emotional support to users – and I don’t think anyone will be comfortable if human quality controllers or ads networks are analyzing those conversations.

Of course, the evolution of personalization also means voice assistants will develop extensive contextual awareness. You already see this with Siri, which tries to surface actions and shortcuts it thinks might help you with your life by analyzing what you do most regularly.

The implications? They begin with Siri recognizing you like to call mom on Tuesdays and end up with it calling ahead to your hotel HVAC system to automatically set your room temperature.

Eventually, I can see voice assistants using crowd-sourced data to estimate the likelihood of a person contracting an illness and advising necessary preventative action.

What better vehicle to offer these warnings than your voice assistant, using the health and activity data about you that you have already created on your device? Or to automatically identify the best available health insurance deal for someone in your condition?

Convenience or dystopia?

I’ve a feeling lots of people may not be completely comfortable with these ideas.

Right now, we’re just becoming accustomed to asking a slightly inept Siri to find where the latest Tarantino movie is showing, or requesting a playlist of classic 60’s psychedelia after we've watched the film, or contacting the local dog adoption agency....

There’s a big difference between accomplishing more prosaic tasks and the emerging future in which we interact with an AI intelligence that understands our moods and has probably already booked us the movie tickets.

This collision between human nature and technology advancement is as old as the development of fire – and the evolution of voice assistants and AI is going to be as transformative.

Ronan de Renesse, Practice Leader for Ovum's Consumer Technology team observes:

"There is a disconnect between the 'know-it-all, do-it-all' approach that current digital assistants are aiming toward and the highly personalized virtual assistance experience that consumers have dreams/nightmares about.

"Whoever can bring personal consumer data in a secure, non-creepy way to digital assistance will be able to bridge that gap and capture most of the opportunity."

Meanwhile, with one-third of the U.S. population now becoming accustomed to using these things, the next evolution is most surely on the way.

Isn't that right, Siri?

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Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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