Picture:123RF
Picture:123RF

Screens have been the dominant means of interfacing with technology for decades. Most of our phones, for example, are basically screen-only devices, and touch-screen laptops are increasingly common. Screens are so ubiquitous that to define the process of using a screen as a means of interfacing with technology seems odd, and may prompt the question: "Well, how else would you do it?"

Well, you likely use a keyboard, mouse or touch pad in conjunction with screens. And remember touch-button phones? Rotary dialers? Or picture the various dials, knobs and buttons on older appliances. These were all common ways of interfacing with technology — something many of us do so habitually now that we don’t think about how they connect "wetware" creatures like us with our software and hardware.

Analysts have been hailing the rise of voice or speech as the next major interface trend for a few years, but what are the implications of a shift from screen to voice? In the consumer space, the dominant voice-based virtual assistants (VAs) are Google Assistant, Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana and Amazon’s Alexa. Siri was the first — making her debut on the iPhone 4S in 2011. But it was Alexa that arguably kicked voice uptake into high gear.

Alexa launched on voice-enabled speakers in 2014 — specifically, the Amazon Echo and Amazon Echo Dot. Since then she has been incorporated into hundreds of third-party devices. The beauty of Alexa lies in her place in the home and her ability to connect to other smart devices so you can ask her to play music, find you a recipe, switch on the lights or google something for you. The primary rivalry here is between Google Assistant and Alexa — according to Strategy Analytics, they account for 94% of all smart speakers in use today.

What you are really doing when you interact with technology via voice is accessing conversational artificial intelligence (AI). This is incredibly powerful because of its apparent normalcy. Putting aside language and accent barriers for a second, you can ask the VA to check the weather in exactly the same wording you use to talk to another person.

According to digital research from Deloitte, VA use is still relatively low in SA and the penetration of connected home and internet of things devices is low and "in the early adoption stage". According to its "Global Mobile Consumer Survey 2017: The South African Cut" report, only 5% of SA survey respondents reported owning voice-assisted speakers, such as an Amazon Echo. Respondents were also asked about the use of VAs on their smartphones, and results are disaggregated by age. So, for example, those in the 16-24 age group report using their VAs for playing music (25%) and for setting alarms and reminders and creating calendar entries (16%) rather than for navigation (13%). This indicates comfort with using these tools in everyday life.

Users aged 35-45, on the other hand, report navigation as their primary use (23%).

In developed markets, voice use is booming — and especially voice search. OC&C Strategy Consultants found that 13% of all US households owned a smart speaker in 2017, and this is expected to rise to 55% by 2022. One of the most quoted predictions about voice comes from Comscore, which says 50% of all searches will be voice searches by 2020.

This prediction is widely used, and more recently widely mocked (the joke being "Is it even an article on voice if you don’t quote this prediction?"). A less ambitious prediction from Gartner is that 30% of all searches will be without a screen interface by 2020.

But the growth story here, specifically for consumer use, isn’t always direct and consistent. In fact, some research from 2018 showed a decline in voice from 2017, suggesting that some of the initial numbers reflected a novelty factor which soon wore off.

On the commercial side, voice is still expected to carve out a much bigger slice of the pie for itself. Business intelligence and accounting software have jumped on the trend — and the voice "sale" is compelling when combined with the powerful data analytics capabilities of these tools. Sage’s voice assistant, Pegg, for example, can answer questions like "How much money did we make this month?", or pull up information, such as a list of debtors. SAP voice technology can be used to interface with various back-end systems, such as an enterprise resource planning tool. The most obvious benefit is the time saved — you don’t need to navigate through menu structures and potentially open several systems at once. With the right integration, it should be a fairly seamless experience.

Voice and chat bots (using text) that can respond in natural language are disrupting the customer service industry. Again, as the system learns, it can mimic human language to the degree that the end customer has virtually no idea that they are interacting with an AI system rather than a person. Instead of learning a command line or process to draw out the required information, you use your language skills. The competition-killer trait at work here is that the AI is essentially learning how to "speak person" and not the other way around.