“Alexa, let’s chat.”
These words are powering a revolution poised to enmesh both consumers and businesses.
They invoke a little-known feature in Amazon’s Alexa — the product of a year-long competition between universities world-wide to build a conversational user interface for Alexa. In 2017, the winner was the University of Washington, and its program underpins the system that you can interact with today.
We’ll take a look at how this effort may impact businesses, but first, some background.
The goal at Amazon was to build a system capable of engaging a person in conversation for 20 minutes. You won’t confuse this conversation for one with a human being, but it’s remarkable that we can even have a light conversation with a machine like this. It’s all possible thanks to a combination of Amazon’s hardware back end, their AI layers, and the work done by this winning team of UW students and faculty to build more nuanced AI approaches. The approach leveraged machine learning to ultimately build a system capable of following the thread of the conversation, asking discrete questions to learn more about the human speaker, and keeping track of multiple conversational options. (WIRED wrote an excellent article chronicling the program and its participants from last year.)
And given the success of the 2017 Amazon Prize competition, as it’s known, the 2018 program is well worth watching.
Chat vs. Chit Chat
This program shouldn’t be likened to a simple chatbot, as we see today. It’s much deeper and more capable, and is based on a wider repository of knowledge than usual chatbots have access to. The goal with this effort is to get the Alexa system pointed more towards the world of a “digital agent,” than today’s world of “digital assistant.”
Today’s assistants are capable of gathering a lot of information on request. We even see them predicting information we’ll need, like traffic on the route to your office in the morning. But a digital agent is capable of much more. It will be able to purchase items on your behalf, accept or reject meetings, and intercept and filter incoming phone calls, texts, and emails — acting as a layer to both prioritize incoming information and reject spam.
These additional layers are what separate today’s assistants from tomorrow’s agents, and Amazon is taking this race seriously. You don’t just decide one day to field a powerful service tool like a digital agent, you need to understand the ultimate goal, define good and bad outcomes, and work your way back to defining the path forward in reverse. Along the way, you’re not answering questions, you’re defining and redefining questions and hurdles to be overcome — whether the technology exists or not is a separate issue for another process and time.
Slow and steady wins the race.
Getting from today’s scenarios where a consumer asks for directions to a restaurant, to systems that can take input such as, “Alexa, book me a table for two at 6 p.m. today at an Italian restaurant,” and having Alexa connected, empowered, and accurate enough to complete that task is still years away. But businesses need to be ready for this change, because when it happens, it will happen fast.
Companies like Amazon, Microsoft, Google, and Apple won’t bring to market a service that needs a lot of refinement. If you think back to when Siri first appeared, the reviews were mixed: great idea, the execution needed improvements. Today, however, popular opinion of Siri, Cortana, Alexa, and Google Assistant is much more positive due to several years of improvements and the growth of understanding among consumers.
A digital agent will be a game-changing moment in a customer's life, and each company knows they have a small opportunity to get it on the bullseye, and a large opportunity to miss the mark and drive consumers away from their platform. This means these products will be much more advanced than the digital assistants we now live with when introduced.
As a business, you’d better get your house in order now.
Everything from technical aspects of your site (SEO, structured data, etc.), to your social engagements with consumers, to identifying and growing your brand persona, to your content and email outreach need to be running at full speed and well-oiled.
If you’re not mobile-friendly today, that gap between you and a competitor who is could widen to a large chasm, which means they’re chosen to be shown in results and you’re not. If you establish a pattern of falling behind, that will be recognized by the systems powering today’s assistants and tomorrow’s agents. No agent of tomorrow will want to pass a possible poor result through to their customer. It’s all about trust, and today’s trust will help you succeed in tomorrow’s consumer environment.
In the meantime, try asking, “Alexa, let’s chat,” and dive into the new world that businesses will one day access consumers through. In that world, it’s not about who brought you the news, it’s about the news itself, and this will force companies to be more meaningful in their approach to consumers — or be filtered out.
Want to learn more about voice search and its effect on business? Read How Voice Search Changes Everything and discover how you can build consumer trust, brand reach, and connectivity in the voice-enabled future.
Duane Forrester is VP of Industry Insights at Yext, a company pioneering a new category called Digital Knowledge Management, which gives businesses control of all of the public facts that they want consumers to know across the intelligent ecosystem.