Why Is Every Company Making a Digital Assistant?

Many of the largest tech­nol­o­gy com­pa­nies have intro­duced a dig­i­tal assis­tant. This is due to the way con­sumer inter­net tech­nol­o­gy is chang­ing, and is set to change even more in the com­ing years.

Many of the largest con­sumer dig­i­tal tech­nol­o­gy com­pa­nies have, or are prepar­ing to intro­duce, a dig­i­tal (or, vir­tu­al) assis­tant. The list includes Aliba­ba (Ali­Ge­nie), Ama­zon (Alexa), Apple (Siri), Baidu (DuerOS), Face­book (M/Aloha), Google (Assis­tant), Line (Clo­va), Microsoft (Cor­tana), Sam­sung (Bix­by), Xiao­mi (Xiao Ai), plus any num­ber of less­er-known assis­tants.

Although this is part­ly dri­ven sim­ply by advances in machine learning—digital assis­tants are hap­pen­ing now because they couldn’t hap­pen before—the larg­er rea­son for all the inter­est is because of how con­sumer inter­net tech­nol­o­gy is changing—and how it’s set to change even more in the com­ing years.

Ten years ago we most­ly accessed the inter­net on desk­top (or lap­top) com­put­ers. Five years ago it would have large­ly been a mix of desk­tops, tablets, and smart­phones. Today we can add smart speak­ers, smart watch­es, and in-car sys­tems. Over the next five years we’ll see the inter­net embed­ded into more of the world around us, from ear­phones to smart home objects and smart gar­ments, to aug­ment­ed real­i­ty glass­es.

The inter­net will be with us all day, every day, every­where. No longer expe­ri­enced sole­ly through screens or speak­ers, there will be mul­ti­ple sur­faces capa­ble of pro­vid­ing access to sys­tems and ser­vices with con­tex­tu­al inter­ac­tions. You might ask a ques­tion with your voice, your key­board, or your cam­era. You might get a response through a screen, a speak­er, or vibra­tions. You might sign up for an event on your phone, ask your smart speak­er for direc­tions, be guid­ed to your des­ti­na­tion by sig­nals in your jack­et, and ask ques­tions about the sched­ule through your head­phones.

The con­troller for all this con­text will be your dig­i­tal assis­tant: a meta-oper­at­ing-sys­tem across all the sur­faces of your inter­ac­tions with the inter­net. Your assis­tant will have the his­to­ry of your behav­iour and the future of your actions. It will need to be smart and capa­ble enough to man­age your con­ver­sa­tions across the meta-OS so you don’t need to keep repeat­ing infor­ma­tion.

(For all this to work seam­less­ly you’ll have to pick an assis­tant; the con­text across sur­faces won’t be use­ful if Google has your cal­en­dar, Apple has your music, and Alexa has your pur­chase his­to­ry. At some point soon you’ll need to decide upon a sin­gle assis­tant, and that will define your future choic­es of hard­ware; there will be a cost to switch­ing.)

There’s a phrase that I’ve been repeat­ing to my col­leagues for months now: Amazon’s end goal isn’t an Echo in every home, it’s Alexa in every thing. This was con­firmed at their hard­ware announce­ment this week, which intro­duced new ver­sions of their Echo smart speak­er range, and devices to add Alexa to an exist­ing stereo sys­tem, and to your car. But most inter­est­ing­ly of all, a pair of Alexa-enhanced com­mon house­hold items; nei­ther has Alexa embed­ded, but each con­nects to an Echo device by Blue­tooth and gains some spe­cial pow­ers through that con­nec­tion.

The first, a stan­dard rotary wall clock with a ring of LEDs around the face that shows any timers set with Alexa (timers are one of the most pop­u­lar uses any assis­tant). The sec­ond, a microwave oven that’s not smart by itself, but has a but­ton that acti­vates the con­nect­ed Echo and switch­es its con­text to that of the microwave, work­ing as a proxy voice inter­face with­out requir­ing lin­guis­tic gym­nas­tics (e.g. “Alexa, tell my microwave to cook on full pow­er for ten min­utes” becomes sim­ply “full pow­er for ten min­utes”).

Could this be enabled through an Alexa skill? Of course. But, putting Alexa inside and giv­ing it a but­ton gives Alexa per­ma­nence.

What is the Deal with the Alexa Pow­ered Microwave? It’s a Mes­sage to Appli­ance Mak­ers.

With these, Ama­zon is show­ing how a house­hold pow­ered by Alexa can be more use­ful. A big step to mak­ing this hap­pen came with the announce­ment of Alexa Con­nect Kit, a small chipset that device man­u­fac­tur­ers can put into their own prod­ucts to make them Alexa-enhanced too. Ama­zon, who don’t have their own phone or com­put­er oper­at­ing sys­tem, are cre­at­ing one for your home instead.

Even­tu­al­ly, Alexa will be com­mon­place enough that you’ll find your­self buy­ing some­thing with­out real­iz­ing it’s even there.

Every­thing is an Alexa Device Now

While Amazon’s ambi­tion is to make Alexa the meta-OS for your home, they’re not alone in that. All the oth­er com­pa­nies I list­ed in the open­ing para­graph want to do the same. Even if some assis­tants (Assis­tant, Bix­by, Siri, and Xiao Ai) start­ed in your phone OS, some (Alo­ha and Clo­va) in a mes­sag­ing app, and some (Cor­tana) in your com­put­er, (almost) all of them have a smart speak­er. But none of them thinks that’s suf­fi­cient.

The end goal isn’t a smart speak­er in every home, it’s an assis­tant in every thing. And every com­pa­ny wants your assis­tant to be theirs.