Voice assistants are just the tip of the iceberg for a new way of interacting with a computer

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The war for voice assistants is hotting up. Amazon’s Alexa is the current champion, having stolen a march on everyone else’s by the speaker unit being installed as an extension of the e-commerce giant’s sales strategy. It’s part of the Prime initiative – which, for $100 a year, offers free two-day delivery and where Amazon’s video and music services were first offered as an incentive for its Prime customers. Because of the vast reach of Amazon, which is also the largest supplier of cloud-hosting services, it was able to grow in tech and sophistication.

In January, Amazon opened up Alexa to hordes of third-party manufacturers and revealed a host of new “skills” for Alexa to perform. Alexa is being included in more devices, including Huawei smartphones, Logitech devices for cars, Lenovo speakers; while car manufacturers (including Ford, Volkswagen, and Volvo) have announced integration plans.

Voice assistants will grow by 130% this year, giving Amazon 70% of this new category of voice-enabled speakers, according to Researchers eMarketer. Some 35.6m Americans will use such an assistant this year, a 128.9% increase over last year.

Voice assistants, which generally send a small voice clip back to the servers for the heavy-duty processing, are the most visible interface with the burgeoning artificial intelligence (AI) services. These will get smarter and more useful, as the network effect gets traction and AI capabilities increase. These are still early days.

The original voice assistant, of course, was Siri, Apple’s clever iPhone assistant that allowed you to dictate messages, make calendar appointments, issue instructions to make phone calls, and other early uses of this new technology. But like so many things Apple has pioneered, the rest of the market has caught up.

Microsoft has its own voice assistant (called Cortana), as does Google Assistant (as well as its more direct competitor, the Google Home speaker), while Apple has introduced Siri into its computers and Apple TV. Samsung announced its own (Bixby) during the Galaxy S8 launch last month.

Last week Amazon announced a new touchscreen model and a slew of features, including letting other developers notify its users with new notification skills such as weather and news alerts from AccuWeather and The Washington Post respectively.

In the past, you said “hey Alexa” to wake up the speaker and ask a questions. Now two new phrases (“Alexa, what did I miss?” and “Alexa, what are my notifications?”) will get your notifications read to you.

There is a significant privacy fear around Alexa and Google Home, both of which record everything that is said in your home, and send these back to the respective servers. This should send anyone’s alarm bells into overdrive. The potential for abuse or exploitation are very high. Most people might reply that there’s nothing they say around the home that they fear being compromised – the “nothing to hide” excuse – but that misses the point.

These Big Brother fears are totally justified. Such intrusive access to the conversations in someone’s home are open to abuse – be it from disgruntled exes, cyber criminals (who could listen in for passwords or personal info to circumvent security checks) and other potential villains. Privacy is a big concern, and shouldn’t be forsaken for convenience.

This column first appeared in Financial Mail

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About Author

Toby Shapshak is editor-in-chief and publisher of Stuff, a Forbes contributor and a Financial Mail columnist. He has been writing about technology and the internet for 20 years and his TED Global talk on innovation in Africa has over 1,5-million views. He has written about Africa's tech and start-up ecosystem for Forbes, CNN and The Guardian in London. He was named in GQ's top 30 men in media and the Mail & Guardian newspaper's influential young South Africans. He has been featured in the New York Times. GQ said he "has become the most high-profile technology journalist in the country" while the M&G wrote: "Toby Shapshak is all things tech... he reigns supreme as the major talking head for everything and anything tech."

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