Tech Finds Its Voice: The Future of Virtual Assistants

Someday, just about anything and everything will have a brain of some kind. But what about a voice?

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I like it when my devices speak to me. I realized this a few months back when I was using Motorola’s Moto X.

This particular smartphone has a feature called Motorola Assist, which automatically detects when you’re driving. When a call or text arrives, the device will speak to you, telling you who is calling or texting and giving you the option to respond with a voice action. I thought this was a very interesting feature.

Similarly, I have other gadgets in my home that will speak to me. Some gadgets speak to me telling me their battery is low. Some speak to me to give me reminders. But I want more. I’ve concluded that not enough of my “smart” gadgets speak to me.

Microchips are invading our electronic devices at an unprecedented pace. At CES this year, I saw connected beds, connected tennis rackets, connected shoes, and a connected basketball — among a host of other connected devices. At retail, we already have connected thermostats, light bulbs, scales, smoke detectors, and door locks.

Someday, just about anything and everything will have a brain of some kind. While many of these devices are getting a brain, many have yet to find their voice. Which brings me to what I think is a fascinating question: What happens when our smart devices get not just a mind, but a voice?


I put quotes around the above term because our devices really aren’t all that smart, currently. We say we have smartphones but what we really have are customized phones. We give the smartphone direction and input, and the only thing it computes are the things the user inputs. But inevitably, we are headed into a future where our smart devices will truly begin to learn about their owners, and in turn provide value back to their owners on their own.

For example, I live off my calendar. Practically every hour of each work week is planned with a task of some sort. My smartphone has all of this data. What is it doing with it? Nothing. All the data just sits there. Granted, new features such as Google Now have started to use some of this data to give me drive times, traffic alerts, and things like that. This a start, but it’s still nowhere near where it needs to be.

For example, I can see something like this happening in the future: I enter into my calendar that I will be attending a meeting in Palo Alto at 10:45 next Wednesday. My smartphone knows I don’t live in Palo Alto. It also realizes my meeting will be ending at 11:30 and I will need to get lunch before my 2pm meeting in San Jose. My smartphone would then start speaking to me and ask me if I want it to help me find a place for lunch that day. It would already know my food preferences and could begin recommending locations that are in line with my food preferences and the general route to my next meeting. It could also make reservations automatically, if need be. Does this sound a bit more like a personal assistant than a smartphone? That’s because that’s exactly what our smart devices will evolve into.

Voice Automation

The heart of the value of our smart devices voices will be automation. In our consumer panel research, we continually find that most consumers’ uses of technology like Siri or Google now is for automated tasks. Things like setting alarms, reminders, creating appointments, and searching the web are some of the most common voice-driven activities. But as I pointed out earlier, most of the direction for what eventually gets automated is coming from the user. Over time, more automation will come from the device as it gets a mind of its own.

This is what I believe will be at the center of the evolution of computing going forward. Our smart devices will get smarter and will begin to add value back to us in very specific ways. In some cases, they will become our secretaries; in some, our smart shopping assistants; in others, our recommendation engines. A device like the smartphone can be all of the above. Perhaps my thermostat will know its role as temperature control device and simply make sure I remember to bring my umbrella today due to the chance of rain.

The first step toward this future is to give all of our electronics a brain. This is where we are right now. But the next step will be to give them a voice and to let the voice and the mind work together so that our devices truly become our personal assistants. In my opinion, that’ll be when our smart devices really start to get interesting.

Bajarin is a principal at Creative Strategies Inc., a technology industry analysis and market intelligence firm in Silicon Valley. He contributes to the Big Picture opinion column that appears here every week on TIME Tech.