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2017 is the year of the VPA

Samuel Caveen

Artificial intelligence has been a burgeoning trend in tech for years now, but at this year’s CES it has finally bubbled over into actual consumer products — either already on the market, or soon to be — through the guise of virtual personal assistants (VPAs).

Connected devices and the ‘smart’ home have been ever-present at the Las Vegas trade show, but this year tech manufacturers are more prominently touting the ‘intelligence’ of their devices by integrating VPAs straight into their products.

In many ways, digital personas like Siri and Cortana that first appeared on smartphones have been the catalyst to finally deliver the promises of the smart home. Actually workable voice recognition paired with a device that you always carry with you, and open SDKs and APIs like Apple’s HomeKit, have allowed smart systems for lighting, security and central heating to flourish, free from proprietary interfaces or software.

Wireless speakers with always-on microphone arrays such as Google Home or Amazon Echo have taken this one step further by providing a voice interface that is always available and responsive in the home. Perhaps surprisingly the online retailer, which isn’t even an official exhibitor at CES, has emerged as the dominant leader in this field, with its Alexa VPA the consensus star of this year’s show.

Amazon debuted Alexa with its Echo speaker two years ago to much confusion in the tech community, but the smart device has quickly converted doubters with its surprising utilities, and the Seattle firm has consolidated its first-mover advantage by opening the Alexa API to third-party development.

This has quickly granted Alexa a long list of applications, many of which were on display at this year’s show. Exhibitors displayed everything from smart lights and smart locks, to heating and car navigation systems being controlled through Alexa, and access to the personal assistant has expanded beyond the Echo speaker to watches and headphones.

Perhaps the headline integration is a partnership with LG, with Alexa integrated into the Korean company’s flagship refrigerator. The fridge will perform all the functions of an Echo speaker, such as playing music or reciting the latest headlines, and when you open the door to find there’s no milk, you’ll be able to order more with your voice, right there and then.

At this stage it’s unclear how much platform loyalty will be a factor in this new sector, just as it has been for PCs and smartphones, but it’s definitely ‘advantage Amazon’ at the moment. Apple’s Siri has become comparably powerful thanks to device creators implementing the HomeKit API, but Apple doesn’t yet have a home speaker like the Echo. Google is definitely the other player to watch with its Echo competitor, Google Home, launching late last year with the Google Assistant at its brain. In terms of compatibility it’s currently behind Alexa, but Google is just now opening up the API to third parties, and its voice recognition and AI chops are still the best in the business.

What does this rapid proliferation of VPAs mean? In the short- to medium-term, the blossoming of a shared platform like Alexa that consumers are already using will incentivise the increasing development of compatible smart devices. That is already evident at this year’s CES, with everything from app-enabled toothbrushes to breast pumps. LG are going beyond refrigerators to lace all of their appliances with sensors and smart tech to provide intelligent tumble dryers and air conditioning units, and the company’s increasing emphasis on robotics means we will soon have various devices rolling around our homes, vacuuming the floors and mowing the lawn.

The holy grail of autonomous devices is the driverless car, and at CES we saw automotive manufacturers falling over themselves to throw their lot in with Tesla Motors with various iterations of smart vehicles — Ford integrated Alexa into a dashboard, while BMW and Hyundai did the same with Cortana and Google Assistant respectively.

All of these smart devices, laden with sensors, effectively represent an army of data collectors, and data is the fuel that allows AI to continue to teach itself and become more adept. Simply put: the more AI-enabled devices in the wild, the smarter AI will become. In the longer term this trend could have profound consequences for consumer behaviour as increased automation around the home and in transport gives consumers more time for consumption, and virtual personal assistants increasingly make purchasing decisions on their behalf.