2020: The year the office finds its voice?

2020: The year the office finds its voice?

Voice-based AI assistants may soon be as common in the workplace as they are at home, handling routine tasks and – eventually – more complicated workflows and business processes.

Credit: Microsoft

While voice-based digital assistants such as Amazon Alexa, Apple Siri and Google Assistant are becoming increasingly common at home – and smartphones and wearables can be used  handsfree via speech – the use of voice in the workplace is just getting started.

That’s likely to change in 2020 and beyond.

The promise of voice in the workplace? More efficient employees, “smarter” voice-based assistants, easier ways of completing routine tasks and a digital experience in the office that matches what’s used at home.

A survey by 451 Research in 2019 indicated that voice UIs and digital assistants are among the most disruptive technologies for enterprises (IoT and AI are the top two), with four in 10 respondents planning to adopt voice technology within 24 months.

“I expect 2020 will be the year when voice user interfaces will become prevalent in the workplace,” said Raúl Castañón-Martínez, a senior analyst at 451 Research. “They will initially address simple tasks, but this will lay the groundwork for increasingly complex workflows.”

At first, voice assistants are likely to be used at work much as they are at home, such as starting phone calls, setting reminders and scheduling calendar events. But more workplace-specific uses are arriving quickly as software vendors integrate voice capabilities into their products.

Voice AI for office productivity

Microsoft recently announced that Cortana – now firmly positioned as a workplace rather than consumer AI assistant – will integrate with its Outlook mobile app, enabling users to dictate messages and request emails to be read aloud. Google, meanwhile, has begun to integrate its Assistant with G Suite calendars, allowing users to check schedules via voice commands, schedule events, send emails to certain contacts and dial in to meetings.

Although these are relatively straightforward tasks, they will get more workers interacting via voice, given the reach of Office 365 and G Suite in the corporate world.

In addition, voice assistants are being embedded in hardware designed explicitly for the office, making it easier for businesses to deploy. Amazon’s Alexa for Business is now embedded in Poly’s conference phones and headsets, while Microsoft’s Cortana is integrated into its Surface earbuds.

Wider availability of voice technology on productivity applications and devices will influence adoption, said Castañón-Martínez. “This will reinforce the familiarity of voice user interfaces in the workplace, in a similar way as consumers have become familiar with Alexa and Siri, and with smart speakers like Amazon Echo and Google Home/Nest.”

Wider access to voice AI advances

While conversational AI tools such as chatbots are now common, voice interfaces have been slower to arrive, according to Hayley Sutherland, a senior research analyst at IDC. But advances  in the underlying natural language processing technology has made voice-based assistants  accurate enough to support regular interactions. 

“We've seen huge leaps in natural language processing, even in the last year,” she said.

That’s important because it means the assistants are less likely to misunderstand commands, which can quickly annoy users. “If I'm working with a voice assistant and it works 80% of the time, that remaining 20% is a lot in my day-to-day job; that can add up to a lot,” she said.

Although advances in natural language processing (NLP) usually come from big tech companies like Microsoft, Amazon and Google with deep pockets for research and development, the availability of voice APIs gives more companies access to the technology. And those firms can create AI assistants better tailored to specific workplace scenarios. 

One example is commercial real estate firm JLL, which unveiled its own voice and text assistant, dubbed JiLL, last summer. The smart office assistant was built on Google Cloud, using the Dialogflow conversational AI platform. It helps employees locate and book spare desks, set up meetings with colleagues and more. 

“We wanted to bring the consumer experience to work,” JLL’s chief digital product officer, Vinay Goel, said in an earlier interview. “We think of JiLL as being the assistant that you have in your consumer life, whether through Alexa or Google Assistant, and we want to essentially recreate that experience with JiLL in the workplace.”

“Companies that previously didn't have the resources to build this kind of capability themselves, or that said it is not their focus area, can now use third-party APIs to get their voice capabilities 75% of the way and customize from there,” said Sutherland. “So that could be another driver [of the technology].”

Privacy and security concerns remain

Another potential barrier to adoption involves privacy and security fears. 

Read more on the next page...

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