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Speaking Out On Voice Assistant Adoption

CES panelists voice privacy and natural language concerns.

No one questions that voice is a startling revolution in device interface and control.

But everyone also realizes that voice also is still in its infancy, and that both conversational/contextual technologies and privacy concerns still need to be addressed before consumers are comfortable with talking with or to their devices.

The need to address these somewhat dichotomous deficiencies was the consensus seemingly reached by the panelists at CES 2019’s Connections Summit conference “Voice-First Experience: Innovation and Disruption.”

“Voice is still in the early adopter stage, but we’re beginning to enter the mainstream,” opined Michele Turner, senior director of smart home ecosystem for Google, who noted how important voice-controlled TV would be for expanding the public’s comfort level with talking to machines. “We all know we have to make [voice] easier for the normal human being to use, to have it respond the way we expect it to.”

“In a future world, in our lifetime, we’ll be able to converse, but we have to build all those tools so you don’t have to dumb yourself down,” echoed Katie McMahon, VP/GM of voice assistant integrator SoundHound.

More advanced conversational and contextual voice technology, however, just can’t encompass vocal cues. “How I act with people verbally informs much more when you look at a person,” observed Ed Doran, co-founder of Cortana and an executive at Microsoft. “Are you happy, are you sad, are you angry. We react to tone and gestures — how do I behave when I say that? It’s more than just words. There are a lot of other signals that you have to bring in to get closer to real voice communication.”

But for voice to be mass adopted, the panelists conceded that consumer data and privacy concerns could be a roadblock, regardless of how chatty and understanding your TV is. Google’s Turner noted that the LED on Google’s Home smart speaker, as well as most third-party Google Assistant devices, blink when the system is listening. No light — not listening. This simple solution is not widespread, however.

“We’re evolving the technology,” Turner said. “The consumer has to be comfortable — that’s fundamental for us being successful.”