Artificial intelligence (AI) is rapidly making inroads into our most used devices – our mobile phones. The integration of AI into our handheld devices could transform our decision making process. More and more apps are using AI to better serve their customers. What’s interesting is that the usage of conventional apps is beginning to dwindle. The 2016 US Mobile App Report found that the average number of apps downloaded per month by smartphone users was only 3.5. However, nearly half the population (49 percent) downloads zero apps per month. This data shows people have become more selective than ever on the apps they download. It’s possible to chalk this up to “app fatigue,” where the collective body of smartphone users is burned out by the oversaturation of apps in their everyday lives. However, the main catalyst for this decline is likely the rise of virtual digital assistants (VDAs).

VDAs are applications or programs that take natural language commands, questions or comments in either written or spoken form and carry out a task or provide an answer. They streamline the way in which users accomplish tasks and gather information, and have directly impacted how users interact with their devices. Rather than manually touching a screen, the same commands can be carried out more conveniently through speech.

Rapid Adoption

The concept of VDAs isn’t exactly new. From Jarvis in Iron Man to Samantha in Her consumers have been exposed to them for some time now. Apple’s “intelligent personal assistant” Siri was released in 2010. Then came along competitors like Microsoft’s Cortana, Google Assistant and Amazon’s Alexa. But the widespread implementation of VDAs has only occurred over the past few years. Signs of this phenomenon taking root were evident in a mid-2016 Google keynote presentation, where CEO Sundar Pachai reported, “20 percent of queries on its mobile app and on Android devices were voice searches.”

Separate research from Gartner aligns with this report and predicts, “By 2019, 20 percent of all user interactions with smartphones will take place via VDAs.” As we move into the 2020s, that percentage could grow exponentially. What’s also interesting is the burgeoning relationship between VDAs and IoT. It’s an ideal pairing that will optimize the functionality of IoT. By 2020, “The majority of devices will be designed to function with minimal or zero touch.” This marks a transition from VDAs being more of a novelty concept to an integral component of our everyday lives.

Leading the Charge

Four out of the five technology giants, Google, Apple, Amazon and Microsoft, have all integrated VDAs in some form. While you may assume Google is at the forefront of this movement, it’s actually Amazon who is leading the charge. “Amazon’s Echo connected speakers, launched in 2014, have given Alexa an early lead by reaching millions of users at home, while Google’s rival Home device only came out in late 2016.”

It should also be noted, “Amazon has thousands of voice-based apps up and running, far outnumbering Google’s tally.” But don’t think that Google is taking this lying down. The success of Alexa sparked an effort to improve Google Assistant, and the company has put forth a major effort to enlist the talent of some of the world’s top developers to stay on pace with Alexa. It even offered 7,000 developers free home devices for their troubles. As the competition heats up, it will be interesting to see what future developments unfold.

The Rise of Speech Recognition

There’s one specific element that’s transforming how we use mobile – speech recognition. We’re seeing a fundamental shift from users physically touching their devices to using speech recognition to provide commands, execute tasks, and ask questions. This utilizes components of natural language processing, which is a form of artificial intelligence that enables machines to gain an in-depth understanding of human communication.

Interacting with mobile devices hands free offers multiple advantages and provides a more seamless user experience than what was ever previously possible. Built with the user in mind, this will ultimately enable individuals to go about their day-to-day lives and accomplish much more with less friction.

Although this technology is in its infancy, we’re seeing a focused effort from the world’s top technology companies to further develop it and improve the customer experience. Optimizing both functionality and usability are a top priority. As it inevitably evolves, we can expect much smarter natural language processing (NLP) technology that understands all elements of speech, even the subtle nuances. The end result should be an invisible user interface where commands are simply given through conversation.

The Next Big Revolution

Given the increased adoption of VDAs and the collective public interest, the majority of technology companies believe voice assistants and voice-based computing is the next technology platform to explode. At the moment Amazon Echo is at the head of the pack, but the other tech leaders all have some kind of voice platform and speech recognition software currently in place.

Google Home, which is powered by Google Assistant was released in October 2016. This platform is gradually catching up to Amazon Echo but has plenty of room for improvement. Apple also announced that it would be releasing the HomePod, which will be available in select countries in December 2017. Competition fuels progress, so consumers can expect significant advancements in upcoming years.

Today’s Virtual Assistant Use Cases

While not mainstream adopted some of the most well known companies worldwide are beginning to dabble in VDAs. The toughest obstacle to overcome is finding the right balance of data analytics and predictive modeling to ensure the response to the user from the VDA is in fact accurate. Their ability to listen, comprehend, interpret and act all need to be in sync.

Starbucks has introduced an artificial intelligence enabled feature on its mobile app called My Starbucks barista. It allows customers to order and pay using voice commands. Furthermore, this feature allows customers to modify an existing order. The company has also launched the ability to reorder an order using Amazon Alexa. Dubbed the Starbucks Reorder Skill, customers can say “Alexa, order my Starbucks,” as long as the customer has the Starbucks mobile app, and an account set up to designate their favorite order.

Ford Motor company is implementing the ability for a driver to use Amazon’s Alexa in their vehicles to complete tasks like stream music, ask about the weather or make an appointment. And, if they have Alexa in their home they can ask to remotely unlock and start their vehicle. Taking it one step further drivers will be able to make Amazon purchases via Alexa in their vehicle. Too busy to go by the pharmacy after work, order laundry detergent and pet food on your drive home. The collaboration between Ford and Amazon just seems to be blossoming. “Ford and Amazon have also developed a way to get Alexa to work seamlessly with a Ford car’s own built-in entertainment and navigation systems.”

Whirlpool announced new home appliances that respond to Alexa commands. Owners of their refrigerators, washers, dryers, and ovens will be able to control some of the core functionality of these devices like setting cook times, knowing how much time is left until your clothes are done, and adjusting the temperature of the refrigerator. Unfortunately, Alexa is not being built into these appliances unlike the LG Smart InstaView refrigerator with Alexa support built in. This erases the need of having another Alexa-enabled device nearby if you want to use these features.

Dish Network’s Hopper devices can be controlled via Alexa. Television viewers can use voice commands to navigate, play, pause, fast-forward, rewind and search content. “We think this is a big step forward for the television experience, and that customers will love this new voice functionality on Dish,” Amazon Alexa Director Rob Pulciani said in a statement.

Combining Voice Recognition with IoT

Amazon, Google and other leaders in the VDA space continue to work to get this technology into every category of IoT devices. You’ll talk to your refrigerator, you’ll talk to your car, you’ll talk to your television. Everything will be listening all the time. Everything will get to know you, respond to you and do things for you. As everything moves to the cloud, virtual assistants will become the interface to communicate with the cloud, which is becoming our interface to everything.

IoT is already witnessing rapid advancement, and multiple industries are implementing this technology in some capacity. Gartner research predicts there will be an “installed base of about seven billion personal devices, 1.3 billion wearables and 5.7 billion other consumers IoT endpoints by 2020.” Companies are finding that machine-to-machine communication is having a tremendous impact on productivity and efficiency. For example, machines are now capable of diagnosing equipment malfunctions and automatically ordering replacements.

As interest in VDAs and voice recognition continues to surge, we will inevitably see the merging of voice recognition with IoT. While it’s somewhat limited at the moment, there are significant long-term implications. Rather than using a conventional app, voice-based interaction is far more simple, quick, and convenient. As a result, companies can reduce inefficiencies and streamline operations even further.

The organizations that are able to effectively combine these two types of technology will yield a major competitive advantage moving forward. Not only will they be able to enhance the customer experience, they can improve from an operations standpoint as well. Whether it’s financial services, government, healthcare, retail or apparel, the opportunities are plentiful. Therefore, enterprises should focus their efforts on the data collected from sensors and use that information to dominate their market.

Common Concerns

The implementation and mass adoption of any transformative technology comes with inherent growing pains. Many users have expressed concern with transparency, privacy and trust, which are all valid. With the frequency and intensity of cyber attacks on the rise, digital security has become a major issue. Cloud computing, though groundbreaking, has already created a host of security vulnerabilities that we’re continuing to sort out. The thought of machines having access to such a large volume of highly sensitive, personal information is no doubt unsettling to many.

You could also argue that it brings our very sense of humanity into question. Envisioning a world where we converse with operating systems more than our fellow humans (think of the movie Her) and the thought of corporations having a greater influence over our decisions and choices can be startling. These concerns must no doubt be addressed, but the end goal isn’t for these systems to do everything for us, it’s to help in a few key areas that will enhance our quality of life.

What’s Next?

The next phase of mobile is here. Although virtual assistants and voice recognition may have been a novelty initially, we’re seeing a rapid adoption. Research director at Gartner Research, Annette Zimmermann summarizes this phenomenon perfectly with the following quote. “Interactions will move away from touchscreens and will increasingly make use of voice, ambient technology, biometrics, movement and gestures.”

Smartphone users are downloading fewer apps than ever. What we’re seeing now are VDAs transforming the way that we use apps and creating a more robust and convenient user experience. A new era is on the horizon. It’s one where multiple types of technology such as voice recognition, artificial intelligence and IoT are being synthesized.

These advancements are allowing users to streamline many of the more mundane everyday tasks such as booking a flight or making a dinner reservation. As VDAs continue to innovate, they’ll have a better understanding of their boundaries and know where their help is needed and where it isn’t. In other words, they won’t attempt to do everything for us but instead be highly specialized in a few key areas.

Further developing this technology has become somewhat of an arms race where the first mover has an immense advantage. That’s why there’s such a heated competition between big name tech players. We’re also seeing more enterprises implementing both IoT and VDAs as well as similar technologies to optimize the consumer experience. Those who are able to do this effectively are the ones who are poised to be leaders in their industries.