Hey Alexa, do smart speakers belong to our future?
Consumers are buying more smart speakers than ever, but experts say they’re only the earliest form of voice-controlled AI devices
Thinking of buying a Google Home, Apple HomePod or Amazon Echo as a holiday gift for your tech-loving friends and relatives? It might not be as future-proof as you hope, according to one of the most well-known tech CEOs in China.
In the future, voice-controlled AI will be mobile and wearable, said Wang Xiaochuan, founder of search giant Sogou. Whether it’s through microphones, GPS or various types of sensors, voice assistants will capture a vast amount of data to adapt to our needs. Right now, smart speakers don't follow these trends and therefore don’t belong to our future, he said.
Since Amazon launched Echo in 2014, tech companies from Apple to Alibaba have been racing to introduce their own smart speakers. The product has been described as the next battlefield in consumer technology. If Microsoft helped bring a PC to every desk and every home, and Apple kicked off the smartphone era -- then who’s going to define the age of smart speaker, the computer that we live with?
(Abacus is a unit of the South China Morning Post, which is owned by Alibaba.)
Last quarter, the world shipped nearly 45% more smart speakers than the same period last year, according to research agency Canalys. Smart displays grew a whopping five fold. The upward trend is expected to continue, with research firm IDC forecasting shipments to reach 200 million units by 2023.
Despite their apparent rising popularity, smart speakers haven't gotten much smarter since Echo first arrived. For Americans, the most popular uses for smart speakers remain simple tasks such as playing music, checking the weather and asking “fun” questions, a survey by Adobe revealed earlier this year. Few people use them for more complex functions, such as researching hotels and flights or ordering takeout.
“The current form of AI in most devices cannot be a representative of what AI can bring in the future, as we are still at an early stage,” said Jason Low, senior analyst at Canalys.
Perhaps one reason is that for most of the day, we aren’t sitting in the same room together with our smart speakers. But imagine if one day you could talk to not just a static speaker in the living room, but also a robot that roams the house, a workout shirt that you wear to the gym or the car that you drive around.
“The smart speaker is the primary vessel today to deploy voice AI, but in the future, we can expect more social robots and many additional form factors, from voice AI being embedded in wearables such as eye glasses and jewelry to textile fashion,” said Blake Kozak, senior principal analyst at research firm IHS Markit.
Eventually, voice assistants will “be available anywhere, anytime,” said Low. Rather than living just inside smart speakers, voice AI will be embedded in a bevy of other devices.
“Smart speakers are mostly designed for home use and are not supposed to be mobile,” he said. The goal for device makers should be to consider what role each smart device plays in their intended environment and improve them according to how they can be used -- even if it’s as simple as adding a clock to a smart speaker.
But availability is just one limitation of smart speakers. Another problem is that they simply aren’t that good at conversation. Just like talking to a toddler, chatting with a voice assistant requires patience and simple sentences. It’s probably no surprise that a Baidu executive said this week that families with children are the biggest users of the company’s smart speakers.
Kozak said voice assistants can get smarter if more people use them more often.
“As more data is collected from consumers and the technology advances, it can be expected that voice AI will act more autonomously and will be able to replicate human emotion, understand context and anticipate needs for the user,” he explained.
“This deeper understanding and linking to everyday lives is perhaps one of the many reasons brands such as Apple, Alibaba and Amazon are deploying voice AI or smart speakers today.”
And that’s how we ended up with a plethora of smart speakers, even though they’re still far from living up to their promises. They might give you an early taste of the future, but perhaps 10 years from now, we’ll all look back on the smart speakers of 2019 the way we now look at the BlackBerry -- an also-ran from a bygone era.