FashMash Pioneers: The Future of Voice beyond Amazon Alexa


FashMash Pioneers: The Future of Voice beyond Amazon Alexa

On September 24th, FashMash founders Rosanna Falconer and Rachel Arthur returned after a summer break to host their seventh FashMash Pioneers talk of 2018, with William Tunstall-Pedoe, the “father” of Amazon Alexa.

Tunstall-Pedoe founded Evi, an artificial-intelligence (AI) company that developed voice recognition software, in Cambridge in 2005. It was sold to Amazon six years ago, and the technology was pivotal in the development of the Alexa digital assistant.

Partnering with Isobar, FashMash Pioneers is an annual programme of monthly talks in which the world’s brightest minds dissect the future of technology.

Already this year we’ve heard about the future of fashion, automation and sustainable design from some of world’s leading thinkers on the topics.

Here we summarise three key themes that emerged from the discussion with Tunstall-Pedoe.

Voice to Enhance the Customer Experience

Brands and retailers are always thinking of innovative ways to add value to the customer experience. Following the latest technology trends without concrete use cases can be a slippery slope, however.

When asked if voice technology is applicable for retail, Tunstall-Pedoe noted that the shopping experience offered by voice assistants is currently suboptimal for products other than those we already know.

“If you want to reorder some sort of disposable product then it’s perfect,” he shared.

Multinational technology company Phillips is already thinking about how personal assistants can offer people a useful experience that drives sales in the process, with the prototype of the Phillips Brush Button– a neat way to encourage busy adults to brush their teeth for a full two minutes.

“In contrast, if it’s a new product that you’ve never bought before, you want to see and read about it. A voice only experience is sub-optimal for this,” added Tunstall-Pedoe.

“We’re just nibbling at the edge of buying things via voice.”

“What we really want is a superhuman sales assistant, that will show you products, explain them to you, consider your unique circumstances and sell you something.”

This is the spirit behind the Echo Bar Experience, built in partnership with alcoholic beverage business Diageo and launched at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) this year.

The Role of Artificial Intelligence

With the progression of machine learning, a question arose during the conversation; should businesses consider marketing to algorithms rather than human beings?

Tunstall – Pedoe made it plainly clear that this is premature thinking and not something for marketers to consider at this stage. 

He clarified that the best examples of Artificial Intelligence (AI) relate to finding the best product for the customer.

On this note, chatbots – powered by a decision tree or complex natural language processing (NLP) – are bursting back into the marketing vernacular, with renewed vigour, following a few years in the wilderness.

At Isobar, we’re seeing a growing appetite for bots, especially those delivered via Facebook Messenger, that provide consumers with a personal, contextual and sometimes entertaining experience.

The resurgence also bodes well for businesses’, voice technology strategies such as chatbots can help brands and retailers understand what consumers are searching for via conversational means, providing them with a stepping stone into the world of voice assistants.

The Relationship Between Humans and Computers

The conversation shifted as the audience were asked; “who owns an Amazon Alexa?” The majority of those in the room raised their hands.

Public opinion on voice technology and AI more broadly has become somewhat polarised of late. On one hand, there are those hungry for the latest voice-enabled products and, on the other, those who are wary of AI’s impact on human relevance.

Does this type of technology have the potential to overtake humans in terms of service level?

“It has the potential,” notes Tunstall – Pedoe.

Chairperson Arthur and Tunstall – Pedoe went on to discuss Google Duplex, which was announced at Google I/O 2018. During this demo, a virtual assistant was shown booking a hair appointment with a human using natural conversation.

“Part of what was disturbing [in that example] is the fact that the computer was speaking in an unarticulated way,” notes Tunstall – Pedoe. 

“The person on the end of the phone acts as an extension of an API, unwittingly. They are part of the computer system, without being asked if they’d like to be.”

This example serves as a gentle reminder to the rate at which voice technology and machine learning is developing.

The voice pioneer rounded off the evening by stating his vision for voice.

“You’ll be surprised when technology doesn’t talk back to you.”

“In the future you’ll be able to summon things in a few seconds via voice technology.”

Voice certainly is an interface of the future, but it has a long way to go before it becomes a fully-fledged channel that brands and retailers can use to sell products to consumers.

At Isobar, we work with clients who want to dip their toes into the water in order to provide a service to consumers that is personal, contextual and cost efficient.

The next FashMash Pioneers talk takes place on the evening of 17th October, with the Chief Digital Officer of Missguided, Jonathan Wall, taking the stage to discuss marketing to the next generation.

Get your tickets here.


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