by Michael J. Mika
Special to Delaware Business Times
Amazon and Google are leading the push for artificial intelligence everywhere with consumer products like Amazon Echo and Google Home.
Both devices were priced to be hot holiday electronic gifts. If there is an early winner in the AI platform war, it seems Amazon can claim that spot.
Consider, Amazon did not have a booth at the annual Consumer Electronics show in January, yet its ecosystem is exploding; and was included in more than 1,000 products. Alexa boasts 7,000 Skills - what Amazon calls apps - and continues to be the go-to platform for developers and consumers.
While some of the skills are frivolous, there are commands that assist you in tasks like turning on the lights, or finding a Pandora station.
Voice Labs, a San Francisco-based marketing company, reported that Echo sales in 2016 spiked more than 400 percent over the previous year, and Google Home and Alexa usage saw third-party developer growth of over 1,500 percent.
Last year Amazon sold about 1 million units; this year they forecast more than 4 million. Google Home sales are harder to estimate, since the product has no comparable year-over-year history, and Google has not released sales figures. But Voice Labs says the number of Google Home users quadrupled from Dec. 24 to Dec. 26.
The explosion is also attributed to changes in how we search. Last year, Google reported that 20 percent of mobile searches are voice queries. Combine that with the millennial generation's user expectations and analysts expect many new AI devices in homes and offices.
Global Market Insights, a business management consultant in Ocean View, released research in December estimating the virtual assistant market size would exceed $11 billion by 2024.
"Their research showed that growing focus on customer engagement to enhance user experience is expected to drive the intelligent virtual assistant market size in the future. Voice and audio-based computing represent the evolution of conversational interfaces into more natural and frictionless end-user experiences," said Betaworks VP Patrick Montague in a recent online post at medium.com.
[caption id="attachment_22524" align="alignright" width="150"] Jim Lee, a Wilmington investment advisor and strategist, and founder of StratFi[/caption]
Delaware Futurist Jim Lee agrees.
"Two years ago, everybody was talking about big data, and it was infographics, and this year it's all about artificial intelligence. There's a competition now. What's going to be the preferred interaction interface for AI and whether it's going to be verbal, which is Amazon's strategy, or text-based which is Facebook's chatbot strategy. I've seen some research that people are spending more time on messengers than social media," Lee said.
Greg Gurev, owner of My Sherpa, a Delaware business technology consultant firm, likens the current trend to the early days of the internet.
"This is like the battle of the portal during the early days of internet. You had all these places where you could start your experience "¦ they want the user to use their portal because that's where everything starts."
Both men agree there is potential for the trend to move into the workplace.
"There is a huge level of interest in businesses using it. Unintended outcome in the increase of minimum wage, with the higher cost of labor, you'll have them find ways to offset their costs with AI," Lee said.
Gurev added, "Everybody is trying to figure out how to make money from personal assistants. How to make the automation hub customizable for you ...Turn things on and off and make life easier."
However, Lee notes that for every trend, there's a counter-trend. "On one hand, things are getting very digital, and the pushback is for things to get very physical. The local and slow food movement is an example of this."
Slow food is fresh and healthy, free of pesticides and chemicals, and produced and accessed in a way that's beneficial to all - from the farmer to the consumer. It's a way of saying no to the rise of fast food and fast life, and taking time to enjoy simple pleasures, starting at the table.
And some worry about privacy since these devices record what you say and store it within company data files. Users can always manually mute their devices and look at the history of their requests and delete the material, but their interactions are used by the companies to improve the devices.
An unexpected example of the always-listening devices happened during the Super Bowl. Google broadcast an ad showing several people saying "OK Google" to issue commands. And many devices on the other side of the screen responded. Amazon Echo, has also been triggered by past broadcast ads.
"Eventually there's going to be a world where everything is recorded, but that's not where I want to be,'' Gurev said. "There will be a large neural network that can out-work us, out-think us and be our best friend or worst enemy. I'm not in a hurry."