Alexa is the reigning queen of the voice-based intelligence of the future. It’s ability to recognize voice and language has only been improving over the years. Such has been its perceived growth potential that Amazon routinely advertises it more in print and media campaigns in the India market. However, are the applications of the power of Alexa directed by Amazon towards the right consumer needs? What use cases is it serving today and are those necessarily the best forward deployment of this powerful intelligence capability?
I believe that Alexa should be more than an assistant to a human. In fact, I would take it a step further and claim that it is a huge waste of human ingenuity to make it a mere assistant to a human. Instead, it should serve as an “Intelligent Advisor” to humans. Is this in the works and will take time waiting for technology to advance? Maybe, yes. However, continuously deploying assistant-like capabilities on Alexa is only going to make this journey even harder and slower. I think the work needs to start now. Even with the marketplace model of developing “skills“, the need of the hour is to build an advisor than an assistant.
Alexa and its supporting devices, the Echo models, are catching the devoted attention of consumers and competition alike. Google is excited about this space too and is not far behind in offering its own suite of exciting capabilities. The recent hair-raising “hair cut appointment” show at the Google I/O 2018 obviously gave a lot more brownie points to Google in this battle of the colossal Tech giants!
Many great resources and articles can be found about Alexa and the Echo devices. Amazon, true to its faster go-to-market deployment style, is launching capabilities and devices literally at lightning speed for a technology and era that is yet to capture the vast majority of the human imagination. But, that is what innovation is all about and who else than Jeff Bezos knows it best. I don’t own an Echo device yet (deliberately!). But I have been eagerly following trends in the exciting space of voice-based intelligence, NLP and its kind.
However, I did make some observations on what Alexa and its devices have to offer to consumers from a Product Manager’s critical viewpoint of a customer-first approach. I personally think there is more to offer through this new technology wonder from a relevance and a relationship standpoint. These two R’s, I feel, are yet to be conquered by either Amazon or Google. Let’s dive deep into these two areas to understand them better.
First, let’s talk about relevance. Both Amazon and Google seem to be in a race to make the human race lazy rather than effective. Being efficient is not the equivalent of being effective. A lazy human with support from voice-assistant technology can seem efficient. But, he isn’t cognitively or even humanly effective in making decisions and choices just the way he should be doing — the powerful trait that helped us better scale the evolutionary ladder of the biological world. A tap on an Echo Spot device to show the day’s weather forecast, to tell the time, to play music and so on are not necessarily making you better as a human. They seem amazing just as any new technology will feel like until the next one comes.
Think about cars! Were they supposed to be designed and used the way they were for private transportation of people for so many decades? Did this technology ever make sense to use outside a sparsely populated city or country with several thousand miles of clean bitumen roads? Did the great Henry Ford care about it? Was it necessary to make humans so horribly sedentary in their life? Herniated discs, obesity and other ailments just didn’t come from drinking cola drinks and eating fast food.
In an article I read that talks about the Future of Alexa, Miriam Daniel, Amazon’s head of Product Management for Alexa is quoted as saying— “The tenet that we believe in is that voice is a simplifier.” This is a wonderful perspective to have when talking about voice-based actions. Qualifying the word “simplifier” may require us to look deeper into what human cognition and activities benefit from with the timely interference of a machine. Playing music on Spotify doesn’t qualify as one. In more recent ads played on Indian televisions, which may very well be the case with the global market audience, the emphasis is on a collaborative family experience.
The focus on family is overblown in the bizarre social interactions created in those ads with an Echo device listening on standby, but, I do think it may have the potential to catch up. Why? Well, think “smart phones”! We had better phones with greater voice quality and convenience prior to them, but they weren’t called as “smart”. We all have a desire to be special. An Echo device may very well make us feel so. But, kudos to the Alexa team for questioning how to handle the visual side of the voice experience while delivering on a voice+touch capability that enthralls its users. Apparently, they are still debating it in closed rooms, and are perhaps careful about not taking the newly baptized voice users back to using the touch interface.
Focusing on family experiences and collaboration is not the “relationship” I alluded to earlier. Family does not need a device to intervene in their communication and collaborative efforts beyond a certain limit within the four walls of their home. Technology does serve the purpose of enhancing some of these interactions, but time has shown that the quality of these interactions have only become worse with more technology intervention that without it. We send emails and share Whatsapp jokes rather than meet a person face-to-face and talk!
Great win for introverts like me, but even I hate the very few opportunities for direct social interaction that these technology devices are taking away from me. I could run the risk of becoming more awkward, socially speaking, than more refined, even though my Facebook likes may be skyrocketing. For me, the relationship part is the one between the artificially intelligent Alexa assistant and me. Yes, to make me more effective, I need an advisor who has a positive relationship with me along with the real-world relationships that I will manage on my own.
Google’s haircut appointment may sound cool, but I would rather have the opportunity to explore other options by talking to a real person. Google Assistant doesn’t care about the haircut or my hair. An assistant should not be the modern-day equivalent of the office personal secretary of the 80’s for a busy executive “man” fighting the world with his bare hands. An advisor (not assistant) should be an intelligent companion, not literally speaking, who makes you better at who “you” are! They should be an extension of you, not an alternative to your lazy self.
We can look at the voice-based offerings from Amazon or Google and immediately realize that they are mostly there to do a bunch of chores or tasks. Some considered important, like updating calendars, and others not so, like a news flash. Beyond tasks, these assistants seem to have been designed to be helpful in two areas:
- Search: to make a buy decision for a product
- Information: to enhance knowledge or productivity
Be it search or information — the underlying thought is that of a smart assistant taking care of stuff in not so smart ways. There is no intelligent decision making or insights being shared by these assistants that are actually a step ahead of what the user had thought about or could think of. Will it just be part of a future roll out of such a technology? Is it just a matter of time before this happens too? I don’t think so, unless, the human intelligence going into designing these assistants and their sidekick devices are changing the discourse on what makes these things sellable? Because, end of day, if these devices don’t make money, they are off the shelf.
Quoting Daniel from the same news article I mentioned earlier, “Yes, we’ve used voice as an interface, but we’re making Alexa smarter about you, your personal preferences, the things you like to do, like to hear, all of that.” Does this provide the answer to the statement I made about intelligence where the assistant is a step ahead in thinking? Yes, but maybe not! this approach of borderline breaching your so-called privacy, rights and your life tries to look back at your past to make smarter moves in your present. We, as humans, are already good at doing that! We do that every day in our personal super-assistant called the brain. When an external intelligent technology is doing it for us, it is at best trying hard to be like us. Again, making you go back to your lazy stone-age self, while your Alexa assistant becomes more and more of your better self. But, why need this self-inflicted punishment of luxury? I think the better way should be for Alexa to be deliberately unaware of your past, care less about your present (you got it under your control) but look out for your future!
Now, what in the world would that mean!? Well, it is hard to say. We as humans are not designed to be future-centric current-state machines. When we build advanced technology for a certain purpose, we find it difficult to imagine the scope of its potential other-uses beforehand. The story of the GPS and its origins eventually leading to its wonderful future commercial consumer application is an example that comes to mind. It just happens!!! Google search as an omnipotent know-all just happened. The fairy tale stories of tears, sweat and blood start ups with a humble beginning and loads of super-intelligence came later.
Keeping this is mind, I would still venture to recommend three focus areas for how an Alexa or Google assistant can potentially be the torch bearers for our future:
- Follow through activities to a logical conclusion
- This is not about calendar meetings and reminders. That is too easy. It is still living in the past. I can do it with a calendar app or Outlook. I may be inefficient. But, I don’t need a voice to haunt me about a calendar entry. Identifying what is meant by “logical conclusion” is what is meant by the difficult future. Inspired by Napolean Hill, I would like to desire certain future outcomes.
- Alexa should help me get there with suggested activities. These suggestions should come from an AI determining ideal states that create win-win situations while taking a lot of inputs and information into consideration. It is a slow learning process for AI, but worth the effort needed to make it happen.
- In an age of weekend amnesia where a few drinks will make us forget the important wins we wish to have once we arrive at work on a boring Monday morning, Alexa should help me be more effective in my actions. It should help me in taking actions to a logical conclusion. One that I am happy with the results of. I will take care of the calendars and phone calls and walking to the cubicle next to me to set up a meeting with the stranger that I need help from.
- Decision making when conflicted with choice or lack of
- The problems that trouble us the most are what we seek external help to solve for on our behalf. Think, God! Alexa could be God too!! Like the way Google search has been called so in a reference to the search giant in the book, The Four, by Scott Galloway. This is not about buying toothpaste or re-ordering diapers. This is not about personalization as is talked about in shopping websites. This goes back to thinking of Alexa as an extension of yourself, another member of the family but without the psychological idiosyncrasies. This is about sharing knowledge on conflict situations, having a conversation on choices to make, their potential outcomes and then, a nudge to think about something more.
- Try imagining how you use google for something your boss said in a meeting for which you nodded your head and volunteered to help solve without having an idea as to what you are supposed to do! Alexa doing this may sound far fetched, but Google doing this could be considered doable. End of day, none can solve this unless the idea of human decision making is studied in more depth from a behavioral standpoint. Pricing decision engines use the concept of elasticity in creating economic models of decision making. You could do it with Alexa for buying ice cream on a hot summer day in New Delhi. Alexa could make you drink a shikanji instead.
- Social Media mentions
- Whether we like it or not, social media has mentally affected the human race beyond repair. To make matters worse, we had politicians mess it up further when questioning Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg, about privacy and their bedtime nightmares. Asking for more privacy through laws and more transparency just made social media stay forever in this world. No privacy, no laws and more opacity would have resulted in a natural death for social media out of the morbid fear that humans would develop of what will happen to them in the future if they are part of the social media web. Governments never make anything easier for people. They call it as democracy. Now, Alexa could come to the rescue here. It could listen in, like the federal agencies, on your social media mentions. It could understand what could prove to be “costly” in the future and draw your attention to them.
- There is a problem here though. This is practically impossible to do as your personal data is held in different segments, shapes, sizes and forms by different non-sharing data hoarding entities like Facebook, Google, LinkedIn and so on. They all have something important or interesting about you but they keep it to themselves. But, hey, you could tell Alexa about your important social media exploits. You can tell why you shared a picture of your friend’s dog and why you support PETA! You can tell why you updated your profile on LinkedIn to say that you won a team award in a start-up with two employees.
- You know Alexa is a part of the family, your extension. Alexa will listen, remember and then as you slowly let your internal system reject it, out pops a friendly voice telling you what you need to act on. It could tell about what you could do about any of your social media mentions. Maybe it is time you found a new job! You could beat your boss to being thoroughly prepared for that important conversation.
So, in effect it will be highly valuable if AI-based voice-powered thinkers (not assistants) drive decisions centered around human behavior and interactions of three kinds — SOCIAL, INTELLECTUAL and EXISTENTIAL.
AI and its avatar, in the form of voice-activated technology, is powerful! It is beautiful!! It is absolutely unnecessary too. Unless, of course, you benefit from it in ways that could improve your future. The mind can be freed to achieve more while being comfortable in the fact that you are prepared for what the future has to offer.
I hope the future I imagined here and the alternate purpose I envision for the voice-activated intelligence will happen soon. When we soon move into a human social order where machines have taken over the mundane jobs and we are living on universal basic income, we need our friendly AI masters (or servants) to be a better part of our own selves.