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Back in 2018, Google’s CEO, Sundar Pichai, demoed the Google Duplex assistant at the company’s developer conference. The assistant mimicked realistic and nuanced human speech patterns (complete with “ums” and “ahhs”) as it made an appointment for a haircut and booked a table at a restaurant while in fluent conversation with a real person. 

Although the audience erupted in rapturous applause at the achievement, in the Twittersphere and beyond, observers were quick to question what they were hearing.

Some called the likeness “scary,” and others felt like a deception was at play — with the human on the other end of the line completely unaware that they were speaking with a bot. 

In the end, the whole episode wasn’t great PR for artificial intelligence or for sophisticated voice technology. But that’s unfortunate because the truth of the matter is that voice AI has tremendous potential to empower consumers and deliver value to the businesses that deploy it — provided there is a clear understanding of its purpose and of its limitations.

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Voice AI in the wild

One of the best examples is food ordering.

Sky-high inflation has been pushing costs up for restaurant owners, while labor shortages have left them struggling to keep up with customer demand (which has been slow to abate postlockdown). Some smaller restaurants have been letting the phone ring out, while some larger ones have even been forced to keep drive-through customers waiting, leading to frustration.

So they’re turning to voice technology in increasing numbers to pick up the slack.  

It makes complete sense. So long as the voice technology is sophisticated enough — and you might be surprised how smart it is right now — having voice AI take an order allows employees to get on with the important work of making tasty food and ensuring dine-in customers have a great experience.

In this scenario, no one is deceived — this kind of voice AI tends to declare its nonhuman status if it isn’t already obvious. Customers are happy, and service industry professionals are supported, not undermined.

Good service, not servants

So how about this idea: Rather than each of us having our own personal humanoid Jeeves (as in the Google Duplex scenario), what if different brands and businesses had their own assistants that formed a broad ecosystem of voice helpers? This way, businesses could assert their own brand identity and cultivate one-on-one relationships with their customers without an intermediary. For their part, customers could deal with a voice AI that truly knows the goods or services the company has to offer, rather than an Alexa-style assistant that attempts to fumble its way through.

Restaurant voice assistants, for example, become familiar with the menu. They learn favorite combinations; they can make changes and suggestions; they learn how to upsell. Why couldn’t that be replicated throughout the rest of hospitality, or retail, or even professional services? The answer is: It could, and it’s starting to happen.

Rather than thinking about the creation of sentient AI servants, we should start thinking of voice assistants as functional tools that we can reorient in this way. In the “real world,” most of us don’t have servants or envoys to negotiate for us — but we do rely on knowledgeable, pleasant and efficient frontline staff. Why not replicate systems that work rather than outmoded ones?

I believe that’s what we’ll start to do, and the experiences of brands and customers alike will become more vivid and fruitful because of it.

Importantly, this isn’t about replacing staff with an army of voice assistants. It’s about giving employees the time and space they need to focus on critical tasks, streamlining clunky ordering systems, and helping businesses grow sales. And it’s also about enabling us as customers to step away from screens and devices to order in the most natural and human way we know how — with our voices. 

Zubin Irani is CRO of SoundHound.

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