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    Entries in voice (3)


    Expanding the Capabilities of Voice Assistants

    Amazon recently was granted a new patent for an advance in the capability of it's voice assistant, 'Alexa', that enables the Alexa to detect a user's emotional, physical and behavioral states, just from the the user's voice and other audio signals. The technology would allow Alexa to recognize audible cues, such as a sneeze, or a cough or a certain cues from the user's tone of voice, and interpret those cues, along with the words the user has spoken, to better understand how a user is feeling, mentally and/or physically, and provide  tailored responses based on that information.

    Have a look at the image below, courtesy of this piece on Business Insider for a graphic of how this kind of an interaction, and how Alexa will attempt to use these audio cues to respond.

    The image may be a bit hard to see, so I can try and spell it out for you. The user indicates that she is hungry, but while trying to say the sentence "I'm hungry", she both coughs and sniffles. Alexa responds by asking 'Would you like a recipe for chicken soup?', a very specific response to the statement 'I'm hungry.' In this case Alexa has 'heard' the user's cough and sniffle, and the statement indicating hunger, and replied with an offer of a recipe for chicken soup - a type of food long associated as one that people who are sick would appreciate. Alexa doesn't 'know' the user is sick, the user has not stated that in words, but the cough and sniffle, behaviors that can often indicate an illness of some kind, are included in Alexa's consideration of the best reply to the user's 'I'm hungry' statement.

    As the interaction between Alexa and the user continues, Alexa asks the user if she would like Alexa to order her come cough drops, to which the user replies 'yes' - still having never explicitly indicated to Alexa that she is sick or experiencing and symptoms of illness. Alexa submits the order for the user and will let her know when it is completed.

    This is a simple example of how Alexa, or any voice assistant technologies really, are likely to evolve over time, to move from simply being 'order followers' to something much more sophisticated and potentially more powerful. Instead of just following commands kind of like a well-trained puppy, Alexa would be able to suggest actions, directions, products, etc. that perhaps the users had not thought about yet themselves, but would find relevant, timely, effective, and engaging.

    The initial reporting on this patent from Amazon focuses, (naturally), on Amazon's business strenghts - surfacing and presenting product recommendations to users that match what the users want and need at the right time, and then helping the users order said products and delivering them to the user as quickly as possible. But I'd like to think about how this kind of innovative application of voice technology may apply one day at work and in workplace settings. Here are just some possibilities:

    1. An employee accesses their voice-assistant HR system to request some HR information. The voice assistant 'hears' coughs and sniffles like in the above example and suggests that the employee may need some rest, or even to book an appointment with the company's mobile app that provides 'on-demand' medical consultation service.

    2. An employee completes a project and the voice assistant asks her to give some feedback on how she thought the project went. The VA senses some stress in the user's voice, and her project summary indicates some real issues with some members on the team. The VA can send information to the project team providing some recommended further actions and remedies for the situation, as well as tips for the project leader to deal with this employee's frustration.

    3. If in the interaction with the HR voice assistant, the VA senses some general anxiety or stress, it could present the user with a prompt to enable the workplace wellness voice application or skill, or suggest some common stress remediation approaches or exercises. The user may not have ever searched for or even be aware of these services, but the VA can sense they may need them in the moment.

    These are just some ways that more intelligent and sophisticated applications are evolving in the voice assistant marketplace. And just like almost every consumer tech advance of the last 30 years, pretty soon these capabilities will be available in workplaces - and employees will demand them.

    I think voice is the most interesting tech sandbox right now - I am really interested in how it will play out.

    Have a great day!


    CHART OF THE DAY: The Rise of the Smart Speaker

    There is pretty good evidence that the rate of mainstream adoption of new technologies is significantly more rapid than it has been in the past. It took something like 60 or 70 years for the home-based, land line telephone to achieve over 90% penetration in US homes once the technology became generally available.

    Fast forward to more recent technology innovations like the personal computer or the mobile phone and time for widespread adoption has diminished to just a couple of decades (if not less for modern tools and solutions like social media/networking apps).

    New tech, when it 'hits', hits much faster than ever before and its adoption accelerates across mainstream users much faster as well. Today's Chart(s) of the Day, courtesy of some research done by Voicebot.ai show just how prevalent the smart speaker, a technology almost no one had in their homes even two years ago, have become.

    Chart 1 - Smart Speaker Market Penetration - US


    About 20% of US adults are in homes that have one of these smart speakers enabled. It may not sound like much, but think about it - how many times had you seen one of these say as recently as 2016?

    Chart 2 - Smart Speaker Market Share - US

    No surprise, to me at least, that Amazon has the dominant position in the US in terms of smart speakers. They beat their competitors to this market, and their platform, Alexa, has become pretty synonymous with the entire voice assistant technology. If I were a company looking to develop solutions for voice, I would start with Alexa for sure.

    Once people, in their 'real lives' begin to adopt a technology solution in large numbers, they begin to seek, demand, and expect these same kinds of technologies will be available and tailored to their workplace needs as well. The data shows that smart speakers like the Echo and the Google Home device are gaining mainstream adoption really, really quickly.

    If your organization has not yet started to think about how to deploy services, information, and access to organizational information via these smart speakers and their platforms like Alexa I wouldn't say you are late, but you are getting close to being late.

    Better to be in front of a freight train rolling down the line than it is to get run over by it.

    Last note - stay tuned for an exciting announcement in this space from your pals at the HR Happy Hour Show.


    The user interface is your voice

    Earlier this week Trish McFarlane and I did an HR Happy Hour Show and podcast based on the always interesting and influential Internet Trends Report from KPCB. On that show, we talked about some of the trends and ideas identified in the report (demographics, generational changes, and more), but one of the report's major themes that we did not discuss was the increase in capability and use of voice as a primary technology interface. Think Siri, Amazon's Echo and the like.

    The report spends a lot of time on this trend, (about 16 slides, almost 10% of the entire report), but I wanted to highlight just one of the slides, and then opine a bit about what this trend could imply for HR and workplace technologies going forward.

    Here's the money slide from the KPCB deck on the growth and potential of voice interfaces, then some FREE comments from me:

    Three quick takes on this chart and the voice interface trend overall...

    1. As the chart above shows, accuracy of these systems in terms of their ability to correctly recognize and interpret speech commands and instructions has been growing rapidly. And as these tools get better and better, users will take advantage of them more and more. Why? Talking is easier (and much faster), than typing or clicking. And convenience - think about when you are in your car, or making dinner in your kitchen, or eating a salami sandwich, (ok, maybe that is just my use case). Either way, as capability improves so will usage rates.

    2. While the primary use cases for voice interfaces and commands are largely personal, (these interfaces are primarily used for things like getting directions, making calls, sending texts, and the like), it is not a far stretch of the imagination to think that such a potentially widespread personal and consumer trend will work its way into workplace and organizational activities as well. Once your employees get used to using their voices to issue commands and requests for personal uses, it won't be long until they want to know why they can't navigate the online employee directory using voice, or ask the HRIS system to email them a PDF copy of their current benefits enrollments. Technology that takes hold of consumer consciousness almost always wants to enter the workplace as well. 

    3. Like wearable technologies like Google Glass and similar the initial workplace applications for voice interface technology might not be in so-called 'knowledge workers', but rather with front line and customer-facing workers like service techs, retail workers, or even in manufacturing and distribution. These are most likely the people that would benefit from increased computing capability that does not require them stopping what they are doing to manipulate a PC, table, or even a smart phone with their hands. We like to think that most tech advances benefit tech workers, but this might be a case where the best ROI comes from enabling field workers with the latest advances in tech.

    I think it is very interesting times in the voice interface space, and I wonder how long it will be until we see the first important breakthroughs in this area in the HR and workplace tech space.

    What say you?