JOHANNESBURG – Open your phone’s email or messenger app and start a new message. But don’t type. Instead, tap the small microphone icon on the keyboard. Now you can simply dictate the message.
It’s not perfect but works astoundingly well. Yet what you should take stock of here is how quickly voice commands have become normal on smart devices. A few years ago the likes of Siri started a revolution that is now fast becoming standard and a hallmark of the fourth industrial revolution.
It’s not limited to phones: Amazon’s Alexa, used through its Echo devices, is immensely popular and growing more adept every day. Developers can create ‘skills’ that link Alexa’s voice capabilities to other services. At the start of 2019 Alexa has over 56,000 skills. If you think that’s impressive, consider that its skills have doubled since 2018.
Talking to computers is growing better and smarter, and humans love it. This is why so-called natural voice systems are becoming vogue, even in business:
We’ve had the early Siri experiences where they don’t understand you too well. But the products have matured a lot and it’s fast becoming the easiest way to interact with a system.
Walk the talk
Two years ago the cloud-based ERP Acumatica first demonstrated integration between the platform and Alexa. During a developer conference, an employee asked for stock reports from Alexa, which replied instantly with numbers.
The current popular uses for voice interactions in operations are requests for information and processing transactions, such as purchase order and payment approvals. In some cases, the voice feature replaces other interactions, but it is also popular as an assistant. Imagine compiling a report and asking the voice assistant to read back stock numbers. This is not only feasible but a tested service.
Security also benefits hugely from natural voice services: Natural voice is very useful to authenticate users. It’s very infallible and makes for faster customer verifications.
Some local banks are already doing this, using voice authentication instead of a barrage of questions that aren’t difficult to circumvent. So natural voice actually has many useful functions it can serve. It’s also capable of talking in different languages.
Natural Voice tech
Implementing natural voice can be very simple if done on a cloud-based platform. This is because cloud-based services, like postmodern ERPs, are designed for easy integration with such services. They can comfortably assign the computing and bandwidth resources to support such new technologies. Legacy systems are not as adept - even if they can implement natural voice, it would be expensive for a number of reasons and still not match the quality of cloud platforms.
Natural voice is low-cost because it’s basically a plugin. But that needs a system that can give the resources it demands, which is expensive when you think in terms of legacy system overheads. Cloud systems scale, so you never pay for any overhead, just what you use. Cloud systems are also much better at running artificial intelligence, which is necessary for natural voice.
Siri, Google Assistant and their peers are all actually types of artificial intelligences, which need the power and flexibility of cloud platforms to operate at their best. AI plays a deeper support role as well: when employees use natural voice to work with business systems, behind the scenes AI is making sure the collaboration runs smoothly.
Natural voice represents the future of modern technology, including the easy deployment and lower costs we are getting used to. But it can also sound a bit complicated and demand. Not at all.
Like any platform play, you can start with a proof of concept and apply it to limited functions in an organisation. This is still the beginning for natural voice, so applications are limited. But more and more skills are appearing. That’s why we don’t position natural voice as a selling point, but as an add-on that companies should start exploring.
In the mid-eighties, the television series Star Trek debuted a talking computer. This inspired developers to chase that dream and less than 10 years ago Siri debuted on our phones. Today natural voice has spread to our phone keyboards and into speakers that stand in our homes. The next step is natural voice in the business world. In fact, it’s already there, waiting to be experienced…
Bernard Ford is chief executive of One Channel. The views expressed here are his own.