Does the Rise of Bots Sound the Death Knell for Voice?

“Alexa, what’s the weather forecast for today?”

“Hey Google, order a pizza for delivery.”

These days, it seems anything we want is just a voice command away. We’ve become increasingly comfortable enlisting the help of “smart” voice technology to make our daily lives easier – and that’s only going to grow. We’re barely scratching the surface of all the things our new virtual friends will ultimately be able to do on our behalf. What will happen when voicebots are woven even further into the fabric of our everyday lives?

Take Google Duplex, for example. Just a few months ago millions of us watched a demonstration of a very real-sounding voicebot interacting with a human to make a restaurant reservation. What happens when that capability evolves even further and our calls to a business are completely handled by artificial intelligence (AI) technology? And, what about the next step – when a bot acting on your behalf talks to your bank’s bot to resolve an issue with your account or to order checks?

Is voice dead? The answer is no, but times they are a-changin’.

Just think about it. No longer do consumers have to rely on IVR (interactive voice response) technology to laboriously plod and repeat their way through all the details required for an insurance quote, for example. Instead, we can go online and our concerns are understood and responded to immediately and accurately. Using natural language processing and speech recognition, bots now have the ability to understand normal human conversation and work to a predetermined set of rules.

The fact is, it’s infinitely easier to just ask for something rather than having to read through pages of text, master some new piece of software, and search, scroll, type or tap. In a sense, sophisticated voice technology forces our tools to give us what we want, the way we want to get it. Most of the time, voice is just more convenient.

Google says its technology can handle complex conversations, without the need for intervention by another human. Even though Google says it is not currently testing the technology with any enterprise clients, and even though the company promises the bot identifies itself as AI during calls – this kind of human-sounding technology is already wending its way into business at large and into all of our lives. Proliferation at the enterprise level is inevitable as organisations look to automate and cut costs.

This is all well and good if utility remains the focus of such voice technology – and everyone stays alert to the potential for abuse. Consumers will develop a tolerance for enterprise voicebots in the same way we have grown to like them in our homes, particularly if they are effective, available and responsive. It is all about convenience. No one likes calling a bank and waiting five minutes to speak to an agent, only to learn they are still ill-equipped to deal with your inquiry. If voicebots provide value, then consumers will not hesitate to use them.

The bigger picture

But convenience isn’t one-sided. It has to be equally convenient for the business and for the consumer. And there are many underlying social, moral and legal implications to consider as this technology matures in support of that balance. How do you ensure a voicebot behaves ethically? How do you prevent inflection and sentiment analysis being deployed to manipulate people during a bot conversation? What do bots do with the information consumers provide? Will they remember credit card numbers? Where does information go? How is it stored? Who and what else can access it? There are severe privacy implications too. In Europe, for example, voicebots must comply with the General Data Protection Regulation (which came into force last year).

Powering these human-like voicebots requires loads of data and comes with tremendous responsibility. Organizations must know where their data is coming from and how it is fused. Is it mixed with third-party data? Where is that data coming from, and can I use that to build my AI models, and should I? If the Facebook data usage scandals of recent months have taught us anything, it is that companies have not always considered the negative implications of popular new technologies and how they might be misused.

 The weight of user expectations

And businesses deploying voicebots also had better be prepared for the hefty weight of user expectation. As humans, we are biologically wired to recognize voices and instinctively recall what we can do with the associated persona. If your company’s voicebot sounds like Alexa, I’m going to expect it to “act” like Alexa. When there are variations in business deployment and experience, it will quickly lead to consumer annoyance. Why can I talk to this brand and do these five things, but only do half as much when I talk to that soundalike brand?

Even though voicebots are soon going to be everywhere, we are not going to be comfortable talking to them all the time. They will have utility, and they will be more convenient for quick queries and simple tasks. But, being able to talk with a real person about messy human matters has value that a bot can never be trained to manage completely and infallibly. Companies will still need human representatives, perhaps now more than ever. The complexity of human discourse, the authentic feeling involved and our unique ability to share the experience of it — this is a type of voice-interaction that cannot be completely and satisfactorily synthesized and automated.

For all the amazingly “real” verbal tics and speedy information processing AI can now produce, voicebots are still an awkward young technology, making human-to-human contact all the more important when we want it.

About the Author

Chris Connolly is Vice President of product marketing, at Genesys. Genesys® powers more than 25 billion of the world’s best customer experiences each year. Our success comes from connecting employee and customer conversations on any channel. Every day, 11,000 companies in more than 100 countries trust our #1 customer experience platform to drive great business outcomes and create lasting relationships.