'Alexa, When Will Voice Interfaces Be Enterprise-Ready?'

Compliments of a holiday gift-giver, we have a new toy in our household -- Amazon Echo, which contains the Alexa virtual assistant software. There it sits in our family room, and when we remember its presence, a whole lot of "Alexa, tell me..." and "Alexa, what is..." fill the air. Add in some simultaneous Siri queries, just for the heck of it, and the ensuing digital voice cacophony can be maddening.

I suspect many readers know exactly what I mean. Even if you don't have an Echo yourself, listen up and you're likely to catch the sounds of a virtual assistant voice prompt somewhere or other. Consider what we've heard from Amazon regarding its Echo line. The company has reported that the just passed holiday season saw Echo device sales surpass holiday 2015 figures by more than nine times, topping off the "millions" of units sold throughout the rest of 2016.

"Millions," of course, is a rather nebulous figure, one that we'll have to take at Amazon's word. I suppose it seems believable enough. As consumer pundits tell it, following on a strong 2016, this is going to be the year of the voice interface, and we'll be seeing the first evidence of that at CES, which kicks off today in Las Vegas. From what I've been reading, Alexa promises to be all over the show floor, highlighted in one partner integration after another.

Gartner calls Alexa and its kin "virtual personal assistants," or VPAs, and notes an increasing interest in voice as an interface as users seek more intuitive ways to interact with their smartphones and other smart devices, like Echo. By 2019, Gartner predicts, 20% of all user interactions with smartphones will take place via voice interfaces.

Elsewhere, MIT Technology Review has named "conversational interfaces" as one of the 10 breakthrough technologies of 2016. As Will Knight, senior editor for AI, wrote, "voice interfaces have been a dream of technologists (not to mention science fiction writers) for many decades. But in recent years, thanks to some impressive advances in machine learning, voice control has become a lot more practical.

"No longer limited to just a small set of predetermined commands, it now works even in a noisy environment like the streets of Beijing or when you're speaking across a room. Voice-operated virtual assistants ... are hardly perfect, sometimes mishearing and misinterpreting commands in comedic fashion, but they are improving steadily, and they offer a glimpse of a graceful future in which there's less need to learn a new interface for every new device."

While I look forward to finding new and novel ways to take advantage of Alexa's AI capabilities in my home, I have to wonder whether I'll ever do the same for voice-enabled digital assistance at work. I see potential in integrating voice-enabled interfaces into team collaboration experiences, as SoftServe has done with its VoiceMyBot chat bot for Atlassian's HipChat software or as Cisco envisions with its virtual digital assistant, nicknamed Monica (see related No Jitter posts, "HipChat Brings Amazon Alexa to Team Collaboration Party" and "Cisco Siri-ous about Monica"). But I shudder to think of the confusion and commotion that might ensue in an open office environment where speech-enablement is all the rage -- my Alexa vs. Siri home episode provided a glimpse of how irksome that could be.

As TalkingPointz analyst Dave Michels pointed out in his "Alexa Why?" post on No Jitter, speech-enabled virtual assistant platforms have potential for the enterprise, but the technology needs a lot of maturing. "Real-life personal assistants work with colleagues and customers," wrote Dave, then asking, "When will we have a virtual assistant that can reliably organize travel, filter email, and order printer supplies? It would need to understand priorities, preferences, and exactly who is authorized to order what. Or what about an assistant that could actually rearrange schedules rather than seek a mutual free time?"

These are great questions... and while we might not have answers to them specifically, we do plan on doing a deep dive on the topic at Enterprise Connect Orlando, coming March 27 to 30, in the session: "Voice as the User Interface: Is It Ready for Prime Time?" Attend this session, and you'll come away knowing the state of the art in areas such as voice recognition, natural language processing, and speech to text, as well as with an understanding of how ready, or not, these technologies are for enterprise use.

Don't get lost in the babble! Learn more about voice-enabled interfaces and other UC&C trends and technologies at Enterprise Connect 2017, March 27 to 30, in Orlando, Fla. View the Unified Communications & Collaboration track, and register now using the code NOJITTER to receive $300 off an Entire Event pass or a free Expo Plus pass.