AI Doesn’t have to be a Disembodied Voice

Artificial Intelligence (AI) isn’t just having a moment right now – it’s already widely in use and here to stay, with endless possibilities for new development and innovation on the horizon. While it’s easy for business leaders and investors to be very optimistic about the technology, it’s also important for them to watch consumers closely as they react to the latest AI products on the market. 

There may well be a segment of consumers that have absolutely no interest in AI. Maybe they think it’s inconvenient to interact with voice recognition software, or maybe they view the entire concept of machine learning as too close to something out of dystopian science fiction novel. Investors should certainly pay attention to the size of that segment as they consider the future of AI, but perhaps the most important consumers to monitor aren’t necessarily the ones that ward off AI. Maybe it’s the ones that already use it, but are on the fence about how to use it. 

Let’s make that a little less vague. In the U.S. today, approximately 57 million American adults have a smart speaker in their home, according to research conducted by Voicebot. A smart speaker is a device like Amazon’s Alexa or Google’s Echo that allows you to give voice commands to perform wireless functions such as playing music, listening to a weather forecast, or entering queries into search engines. According to Vox, these are three of consumers’ most common uses for smart speakers, showing that those functions will be the standard for household-use-AI, at least until something new enters the market. 

But there are some other functions that smart speakers can perform which hasn’t captured the interest of consumers. Two of those functions are shopping and food delivery. That same data from Vox also shows that consumers aren’t turning to their smart speakers to order from retail stores or restaurants, which suggests that they still prefer visiting those stores in person or manually using an app to giving voice commands. In fact, Vox also reports that less than one percent of consumers would prefer shopping using voice software to the in-person brick and mortar experience. 

This figure should scare any investor or company thats banking on the success of voice recognition ordering systems. In response to this fear, businesses on the cutting edge of AI technology have a few options. They could abandon hopes for AI in ordering systems altogether, but that option seems particularly bleak. Alternatively, they could invest in marketing campaigns and consumer education programs to try to boost that one percent number up significantly, essentially convincing consumers to give smart speakers a chance in shopping and food delivery. However, given how little consumers are interested in using Alexa to order food in the first place, that might prove to be futile. 

A third route requires a shift in thinking. Right now, smart speakers are viewed as a piece of technology that solely facilitates voice interaction. You speak to Alexa, and it responds to you. That’s how it’s marketed, and it’s what those 57 million consumers who currently use it to check the weather and play music like most about it. 

But clearly, consumers don’t have the same desire to interact with a disembodied voice when they shop for clothes or order their dinner. The appeal of AI technology – the interactivity, the ability to learn things about the consumer, the convenience – they simply don’t translate. In order to fix this problem, the next step for AI technology to enter the home needs to step away from voice commands. In other words, Alexa needs to be reimagined as something other than a disembodied voice. 

Imagine a tool you can access from your iPad or tablet that knows your favorite retail stores and restaurants and constantly monitors them for sales. The tool is equipped with AI technology and it gets to know you, anticipating what you want to buy. It connects you to numerous food delivery apps and is capable of placing orders at any retail chain in the country. This tool isn’t voice interactive – it’s something you interact with on a touch screen. Nevertheless, it uses AI technology. It is convenient, it gets to know you, and at the end of the day, it improves the online shopping experience. It has all of the benefits of machine learning without the voice recognition component. 

This is a way for companies that invest in AI to reimagine how it can be brought to consumers. The next steps don’t need to include the disembodied voices of Alexa, Siri and Echo in order to be desirable. AI can be integrated into the technology, websites and apps we all use every day. They can improve the consumer experience and offer the value consumers aren’t interested in getting from their smart speakers. The future of AI products doesn’t have to exclude restaurants and retail – it just needs to think beyond voice recognition software and offer a different way to interact with AI that consumers haven’t yet experienced.