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I’ve been looking for actual data on how consumers perceive the emerging market of voice-enabled digital assistants like Amazon Echo and Google Home.

What I found is a survey result from Accenture, in a report called Dynamic Digital Consumers. Between October and November 2016, Accenture did a questionnaire survey with approximately 26,000 consumers in 26 countries.

The survey found that only 4% of respondents own a voice-enabled digital assistant. While that seems like a very small portion of the population, two-thirds (65%) of owners said they use the device regularly. Accenture interpreted this as “showing strong acceptance of this new technology.”

Actually, voice assistants on smartphones are also becoming popular, “as the AI technology powering these services has improved dramatically,” wrote Accenture. “Younger consumers are leading the adoption, with more than four in five (84%) of 14-to-17 year olds saying they either use this technology today or are interested in doing so.”

The survey also found that consumers are willing to embrace a wide array of potential AI-powered, personalised services, with a majority interested in personal health assistants (cited by 60%), smart trip assistants (59%) and entertainment advisors (51%).

The findings confirm a wide-open market for vendors to add a layer of voice-enabled AI features to every new device.

However, I’m puzzled. Why ask machines questions when we have family members, friends, teachers and colleagues to answer them?

Breaking down the survey results

Accenture’s survey results are illuminating:

  • 82% said artificial intelligence is “available anytime”
  • 68% said artificial intelligence is “less biased”
  • 68% said artificial intelligence enables “faster engagement”
  • 64% said artificial intelligence “communicates more politely”
  • 56% said artificial intelligence is “less likely to make a mistake”

We’re apparently moving into an era of trusting machines more in preference to real human beings. As we spend more time staring at screens while googling feverishly, we should have seen this coming. Now, instead of typing questions, we can “just ask.” We’ve rendered the opposable thumb, one of humanity’s truest distinctions, obsolete.

The survey also found:

  • 87% said it’s easier to get in touch using these AI methods
  • 62% are comfortable with an AI app responding to their query
  • One-third are interested in using a voice-enabled digital assistant in their smartphones.

While I remain unsold on this voice-enabled digital assistant thing, I had a chance to talk to Paul Beckmann, president of DSP Concepts. Since he’s prominent in the voice business, he recognises that the voice’s starring role has finally come, after long playing second fiddle in the multimedia revolution that has begun in 1990s.

Beckman has been asking everyone, “Do me a favour and buy one of those digital voice-enabled assistants.” I asked, “To do what, exactly?”

He gave me a surprisingly modest answer. “The only thing I actually do with my device is, when I walk into a bedroom, I ask the device, ‘Wake me up at 7,’ for example. I just use it to set the alarm for tomorrow morning.”

Wait. Don’t we already do that either on a real alarm clock or on our cell phone before we go to bed?

Beckman said, “No, just to be able to say it when you crawl into a bed… Try it. It changes your life.” He swears by it.

His suggestion suddenly revealed something I didn’t see before. It’s the convenience, damn it. You no longer need to touch anything physically, fiddle with a knob or touch buttons. Just spit it out.

Then I pondered all the IT troubles I’m having lately with my new PC and my new smartphone. I always appreciate it when my IT person literally walks me through the process over the phone, tells me to slide this button to this or that. Wouldn’t it be nice if I had a virtual assistant, and just ask it to give me instructions? (Or better yet, tell my smartphone to do it all by itself.)

I begin to see why voice is getting popular. It’s simple, intuitive and smarter than the average bear. The voice-enabled digital assistant just sits there, undemanding, waiting for my orders. In a world where nobody seems to have time to listen anymore, well, suddenly, this attentive machine feels like a godsend. I get that.

Elephant in the room

But what about my privacy? While my voice-enabled digital assistant is connected, who’s listening? How much of my conversation–before I say “Alexa”–is being recorded? Where is the data stored?

Vendors tell us don’t worry. But seriously, am I supposed to just take Amazon’s word for it? Personal secrecy still looms large as the elephant in the room.

Curiously, the same Accenture survey finds that consumers–so eager to embrace AI devices–are actually concerned about getting connected devices.

Accenture said, “Although smartphone purchase intent is on a growth trajectory this year, the same does not hold true for other connected devices.”

David Sovie, global managing director for Accenture’s Electronics and High-Tech business, calls it “the insecurity of things.” He said, “There are widespread consumer concerns about the privacy of their personal data being stolen or compromised. And relative to the value delivered, prices of these connected devices remain too high. Market momentum for these devices will stall unless the industry overcomes these obstacles. If that happens, market demand could accelerate quickly.”

The survey findings offer some evidence. While consumer interest in many connected devices–ranging from surveillance cameras to wearable fitness devices remains relatively high, far fewer consumers are actually planning to buy them in the next 12 months.

Nearly half (4%) of respondents said they plan to buy a home connected surveillance camera within the next five years, compared with only 10% who said they plan to do so in the next year. In addition, 44% intend to buy a wearable fitness monitor in the next five years, versus 12% who said they will do so this year, and 42% said they plan to buy a smart home thermostat over the next five years.

Well, I’m now sufficiently intrigued with Amazon Echo and Google Home. But when it comes to an actual purchase, I’m still on the fence. What about you?

 
« Previously: Insecurity of things: Is Alexa a double agent?