Richard Windsor
21 April 2017

Digital assistants -Bursting bandwagon

Digital assistant bandwagon bursting at the seams.

Building a digital assistant is all the rage these days but just like app stores, we suspect that the weaker players will soon drop out once they begin to realise how difficult and how expensive it is to make a good one that users actually want to interface with.

The latest companies to jump on the already-full-to-bursting digital assistant bandwagon are Orange and Deutsche Telecom who together are creating a digital assistant called Djingo which can exist in a speaker, remote control or smartphone app.  Its functionality looks to be very similar to Amazon Alexa with both companies pouring their combined knowledge and experience in artificial intelligence (AI) into the product. Other recent additions to the bandwagon include, LINE with Clova, Huawei and Samsung with Bixby.

However, we suspect that all of these players are going to quickly discover that digital assistants are really difficult to get right. For example, Alexa, which is considered to be a leader, can only accurately interpret the words the user speaks but really struggles to make any real sense from them. The net result is that the user has to give commands to Alexa in a specific way if the desired result is to be achieved.

Edison research has found that digital assistants also suffer from a chicken and egg problem where they need usage to improve because it is with usage data that they can evolve. The problem is that no one will use them if they are not already very good meaning they will be unable to gather the data they need to get to level of quality where users will engage with them. Alexa and Siri, with 10m and 1bn+ deployed devices relatively, have scope to generate data but I think that both of them are struggling as usage remains low.

For example, by far the most used feature of the Amazon Echo device (Alexa’s flagship home) is the Bluetooth speaker which completely obviates any usage of the Alexa digital assistant. This leaves Google and Baidu leading the field both of whom are global leaders in both AI and data generation which are the two most important raw materials for the creation of a good digital assistant.

Despite our negative view on the new comers, it is worth noting that mobile operators are providers of the data packets which deliver digital life services and consequently have huge repositories of data. Operators are restricted in terms of what they can do with this data, but we see no reason why this data should not be used to train algorithms. These algorithms could then be used to ensure that the services that they offer are better than those of their competitors or they could be licensed to third parties.

What operators lack is the artificial intelligence expertise to make anything of this data and as a result, we suspect that the vast majority of this data will end up gathering dust. Whether Orange and Deutsche Telekom have realised this potential remains to be seen but given their history, we suspect they are just jumping on the bandwagon in a last attempt to avoid being left behind.”

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