Posts Tagged ‘voice assistant’
February 11, 2019
Voice Assistants are growing in both popularity and capability. They are arriving in our home, cars, mobile devices and seem to now be a standard part of American culture, entering our tv shows, movies, music, and Super Bowl ads. However, this popularity is accompanied by a persistent concern over our privacy and the safety of our personal data when these devices are always listening and always watching.
There is a significant distrust of big companies like Facebook, Google, Apple, and Amazon. Facebook and Google have admitted to misusing our private data, and Apple and Amazon have admitted that system failures have led to a loss of private data.
So naturally, there would be an advantage of not sending our voices or videos into the cloud and doing the processing on-device. Then no data loss is at risk. Cloud-based queries could still occur, but through anonymized text only.
COMPUTING AT THE EDGE VERSUS THE CLOUD
Some have argued that we have carried microphones and cameras around with us for years without any issues, but I see this thinking as flawed. Just recently, Apple admitted to a facetime bug on mobile phones enabling “eavesdropping” on others.
Also, if my phone is listening for a wake word it’s a very different technology model than an IoT device that’s “always on.” Phones are usually designed to listen in arms-length situations of 2 or 3 feet. An IoT speaker is designed to listen to 20 feet! If we assume constant noise across a room that could make an assistant “false fire” and start listening, then we can think of 2 listening circles, one with a radius of 3 feet and one with a radius of 20 feet, to compare the listening area of the phone with a far-field IoT device such as a smart speaker. The phone has a listening area of π r2 or 9 π, the IoT device has a listening area of 400 π. So, all else equal the IoT device is about 44 times more likely to false fire and start listening when it wasn’t intended to.
As cloud-based far-field assistants enter the home there is a definite risk of our private data getting intercepted. It’s not just machine errors but human errors too, like the Amazon employee that accidentally sent out the wrong data to a person that requested it.
There are also other means in which we can lose our cloud-connected private data like the “dolphin attack” that can allow outsiders to listen in.
ON-DEVICE VOICE ASSISTANTS WILL BECOME MORE COMMON
August 6, 2018
Apple introduced Siri in 2011 and my world changed. I was running Sensory back then as I am today and suddenly every company wanted speech recognition. Sensory was there to sell it! Steve Jobs, a notorious nay-sayer on speech recognition, had finally given speech recognition the thumbs up. Every consumer electronics company noticed and decided the time had come. Sensory’s sales shot up for a few years driven by this sudden confidence in speech recognition as a user interface for consumer electronics.
Fast forward to today and Apple has just become the first and only trillion dollar US company in terms of market capitalization. One trillion dollars is an arbitrary round number with a lot of zeroes, but it is psychologically very important. It was winning a race. It was a race between Cook, Bezos, the Google/Alphabet Crew and others that most of the contestants would say doesn’t really matter and that they weren’t in the race. But, they were and they all wanted to win. Without question it was quarterly financial results that caused Apple to reach the magic number and beat Amazon, Google and Microsoft to the trillion dollar value spot. I wouldn’t argue that Siri got them there, but I would argue that Siri didn’t stop them, and this is important.
SIRI WAS FIRST, BUT QUICKLY LOST THE VOICE LEAD TO RIVALS
Then in 2014 Amazon introduced the Echo smart speaker with Alexa and beat Apple and others into the home with a useable voice assistant. Alexa came out strong and got stronger quickly. Amazon amassed over 5,000 people into what is likely the largest speech recognition team in the world. Google got punched but wasn’t knocked out. Its AI team kept growing and Google had a very strong reputation in academia as hiring the best and brightest machine learning and AI folks out of PhD programs. By 2016, Google had introduced its own smart speaker, and by CES 2018, Google made a VERY strong marketing statement that it was still in the game.
APPLE FOCUSED ELSEWHERE
AI ASSISTANTS DRIVE CONSUMER LOCK-IN
The assistants aren’t sold and so they don’t directly make money but they can be used as purchasing agents (where Amazon makes a lot of money), advertising agents (where Google makes its money), access to entertainment services (where all the big guys make money) and as a user experience for consumer electronics (where Apple makes a lot of money). The general thinking is that the more an assistant is used, the more it learns about the user, the better it serves the user, and the more the user is locked in! So winning in the AI Assistant game is HUGELY important and recent changes at Apple show that Siri is quickly coming up in the rankings and could have more momentum right now than in its entire history. That’s why Siri didn’t stop Apple from reaching $1T.
SIRI ON THE RISE
It may have taken a while but Apple seems serious. It’s nice to have a pioneer in the space not stay down for the count!
September 25, 2017
Several hundred articles have been written about Amazon’s new moves into Smart Glasses with the Alexa assistant. And it’s not just TechCrunch, Gizmodo, The Verge, Engadget, and all the consumer tech pubs doing the writing. It’s also places like but CNBC, USA Today, Fox News, Forbes, and many others.
I’ve read a dozen or more and they all say similar things about Amazon (difficulties in phone hardware), Google (failure in Glass), bone conduction mics, mobility for Alexa, strategy to get Alexa Everywhere, etc. But something big got lost in the shuffle.
Here’s your clue—the day before the Alexa Smart Glasses was announced, Amazon released details of a Fire Tablet upgrade, with one of the key features being a way to make Alexa Handsfree. That’s right, in both the glasses and the Fire Tablet, we have Alexa implementations running on batteries.
This is a REALLY big deal! This means that Amazon has already caught up to Google in being able to implement low-power devices with its handsfree Alexa Assistant. Is this important? Yes, it is. It may be the most important battle to be waged in the Assistant wars. This is because the assistant we want is the invisible assistant that’s embedded into our bodies and our clothing. This assistant would be so small that it enables a seamless experience to augment our intelligence and capabilities without anyone even knowing. This assistant has to be low power, and handsfree Alexa is now enabled in extremely power sensitive modes. Kudos to Amazon!
February 1, 2017
The hands-free personal assistant that you can wake on voice and talk to naturally has significantly gained popularity the last couple of years. This kind of technology made its debut not all that long ago as a feature of Motorola’s MotoX, a smartphone that had always-listening Moto Voice technology powered by Sensory’s TrulyHandsfree technology. Since then, the always-listening digital assistant quickly spread across mobile phones and PCs from several different brands, making phrases like, “Hey Siri,” “Okay Google,” and, “Hey Cortana,” commonplace.
Then, out of nowhere, Amazon successfully tried its hand at the personal assistant with the Echo, sporting a true natural language voice interface and Alexa cloud-based AI. It was initially marketed for music, but quickly expanded domain coverage to include weather, Q&A, recipes, and the ability to answer common questions. On top of that, Amazon also opened its platform up to third-party developers, allowing them to proliferate the skill sets available on the Alexa platform, with now more than 10,000 skills accessible to users. These skills allow Amazon’s Echo, Tap, and Dot, as well as the several new third-party Alexa-equipped products like Nucleus and Triby, to be used to access and control various IoT functions, from reading heart rates on Fitbits to ordering pizzas and controlling lights within the home.
Until recently, always-listening, hands-free assistants required a certain minimum power capability, restricting form factors to table top speakers or appliance devices that had to either be plugged in to an outlet or have a large battery. Also, Amazon’s Echo, Tap, and Dot all required a Wi-Fi connection for communicating with the Alexa AI engine to make use of its available skills. Unfortunately, this meant you were restricted to using Alexa within your home or Wif-Fi network. If you wanted to go on a run, the only way to ask Alexa for your step count or heart rate was to wait until you got back home.
This is changing now with technology like Sensory’s VoiceGenie, an always-listening embedded speech recognizer for wearables and hearables that runs in a low power mode on a Qualcomm/CSR Bluetooth chip. The solution takes a session border controller (SBC) music decoder and intertwines it with a speech recognition system so that while music is playing and the decoder is in-use, VoiceGenie is on and actively listening, allowing the Bluetooth device to listen for two keywords:
To give an example of how this works, a Bluetooth headset’s volume, pairing process, battery strength, or connection status can only be controlled or monitored through the device itself, so VoiceGenie handles those controls with no touching required. VoiceGenie can also read the incoming caller’s name and ask the user if they want to answer or ignore. Additionally, VoiceGenie can call up the phone’s assistant like Google Assistant, Siri, or Cortana, to ask by voice for a call to be made or a song to be played. By saying, “Alexa,” the user can access the Alexa service directly from their Bluetooth headsets while out and about, using their smartphone as the connection to the Alexa cloud.
Today’s consumer wants a personalized assistant that knows them, is convenient to use, keeps their secrets safe, and helps them in their daily lives. This help can be accessing information, getting answers to questions or intelligently controlling your home environment. It’s very difficult to accomplish this for privacy and power reasons solely using cloud-based AI technology. There needs to be embedded intelligence on devices, and it needs to run at low power. A low-power embedded voice assistant that adds an intelligent voice interface to portable and wearable devices, while also adding Alexa functionality to them, can address those needs.
January 5, 2017
Virtual handsfree assistants that you can talk to and that talk back have rapidly gained popularity. First, they arrived in mobile phones with Motorola’s MotoX that had an ‘always listening’ Moto Voice powered by Sensory’s TrulyHandsfree technology. The approach quickly spread across mobile phones and PCs to include Hey Siri, OK Google, and Hey Cortana.
Then Amazon took things to a whole new level with the Echo using Alexa. A true voice interface emerged, initially for music but quickly expanding domain coverage to include weather, Q&A, recipes, and the most common queries. On top of that, Amazon took a unique approach by enabling 3rd parties to develop “skills” that now number over 6000! These skills allow Amazon’s Echo line (with Tap, Dot) and 3rd Party Alexa equipped products (like Nucleus and Triby) to be used to control various functions, from reading heartrates on Fitbits to ordering Pizzas and controlling lights.
Until recently, handsfree assistants required a certain minimum power capability to really be always on and listening. Additionally, the hearable market segment including fitness headsets, hearing aids, stereo headsets and other Bluetooth devices needed to use touch control because of their power limitations. Also, Amazons Alexa had required WIFI communications so you could sit on your couch talking to your Echo and query Fitbit information, but you couldn’t go out on a run and ask Alexa what your heartrate was.
All this is changing now with Sensory’s VoiceGenie!
The VoiceGenie runs an embedded recognizer in a low power mode. Initially this is on a Qualcomm/CSR Bluetooth chip, but could be expanded to other platforms. Sensory has taken an SBC music decoder and intertwined a speech recognition system, so that the Bluetooth device can recognize speech while music is playing.
The VoiceGenie is on and listening for 2 keywords:
For example, a Bluetooth headset’s volume, pairing, battery strength, or connection status can only be controlled by the device itself, so VoiceGenie handles those controls without touching required. VoiceGenie can also read incoming callers’ names and ask the user if they want to answer or ignore. VoiceGenie can call up the phone’s assistant, like Google Assistant or Siri or Cortana, to ask by voice for a call to be made or a song to be played.
Some of the important facts behind the new VoiceGenie include:
This third point is perhaps the least understood, yet the most important. People want a personalized assistant that knows them, keeps their secrets safe, and helps them in their daily lives. This help can be accessing information or controlling your environment. It’s very difficult to accomplish this for privacy and power reasons in a cloud powered environment. There needs to be embedded intelligence. It needs to be low power. VoiceGenie is that low powered voice assistant.
June 17, 2016
Hey Siri, Cortana, Google, Assistant, Alexa, BlueGenie, Hound, Galaxy, Ivee, Samantha, Jarvis, or any other voice-recognition assistant out there.
Now that Google and Apple have announced that they’ll be following Amazon into the home far-field voice assistant business, I’m wondering how many things in my home will always be on, listening for voice wakeup phrases. In addition, how will they work together (if at all). Let’s look at some possible alternatives:
Co-existence. We’re heading down a path where we as consumers will have multiple devices on and listening in our homes and each device will respond to its name when spoken to. This works well with my family; we just talk to each other, and if we need to, we use each other’s names to differentiate. I can have friends and family over or even a big party, and it doesn’t become problematic calling different people by different names.
The issue for household computer assistants all being on simultaneously is that false fires will grow in direct proportion to the number of devices on and listening. With Amazon’s Echo, I get a false fire about every other day, and Alexa does a great job of listening to what I say after the false fire and ignoring if it doesn’t seem to be an intended command. It’s actually the best performing system I’ve used and the fact that its starts playing music or talking every other week is a testament to what a good job they have done. However, interrupting my family every other week is not good enough. And if I have five always-listening devices interrupting us 10 times a month, that becomes unacceptable. And if they don’t do as good a job as Alexa, and interrupt more frequently, it becomes quite problematic.
Functional winners. Maybe each device could own a functional category. For example, all my music systems could use Alexa, my TV’s use Hi Galaxy, and all appliances are Bosch. Then I’d have less “names” to call out to and there would be some big benefits: 1) The devices using the same trigger phrase could communicate and compare what they heard to improve performance; 2) More relevant data could be collected on the specific usage models, thus further improving performance; and 3) With less names to call out, I’d have fewer false fires. Of course, this would force me as a consumer to decide on certain brands to stick to in certain categories.
Winner take all. Amazon is adopting a multi-pronged strategy of developing its own products (Echo, Dot, Tap, etc.) and also letting its products control other products. In addition, Amazon is offering the backend Alexa voice service to independent product developers. It’s unclear whether competitors will follow suit, but one thing is clear—the big guys want to own the home, not share it.
Amazon has a nice lead as it gets other products to be controlled by Echo. The company even launched an investment fund to spur more startups writing to Alexa. Consumers might choose an assistant we like (and we think performs well) and just stick with that across the household. The more we share with that assistant, the better it knows us, and the better it serves us. This knowledge base could carry across products and make our lives easier.
Just Talk. In the “co-existence” case previously mentioned, there six people in my household, so it can be a busy place. But when I speak to someone, I don’t always start with their name. In fact, I usually don’t. If there’s just one other person in the room, it’s obvious who I’m speaking to. If there are multiple people in the room, I tend to look at or gesture toward the person I’m addressing. This is more natural than speaking their name.
An “always listening” device should have other sensors to know things like how many people are in the room, where they’re standing and looking at, how they’re gesturing, and so on. These are the subconscious cues humans use to know who is talking to us, and our devices would be smarter and more capable if they could do it.
June 15, 2016
“Credit to the team at Amazon for creating a lot of excitement in this space,” Google CEO Sundar Pichai. He made this comment during his Google I/O speech last week when introducing Google’s new voice-controlled home speaker, Google Home which offers a similar sounding description to Amazon’s Echo. Many interpreted this as a “thanks for getting it started, now we’ll take over,” kind of comment.
Google has always been somewhat marketing challenged in naming its voice assistant. Everyone knows Apple has Siri, Microsoft has Cortana, and Amazon has Alexa. But what is Google’s voice assistant called? Is it Google Voice, Google Now, OK Google, Voice Actions? Even those of us in the speech industry have found Google’s branding to be confusing. Maybe they’re clearing that up now by calling their assistant “Google Assistant.” Maybe that’s the Google way of admitting it’s an assistant without admitting they were wrong by not giving it a human sounding name.
The combination of the early announcement of Google Home and Google Assistant has caused some to comment that Amazon has BIG competition at best, and at worst, Amazon’s Alexa is in BIG trouble.
I thought I’d point out a few good reasons why Amazon is in pretty good shape:
Of course, Amazon has its challenges as well, but I’ll leave that for another blog.
March 8, 2012
A couple of TV shows I watched when I was a kid have characters that make me think of where speech recognition assistants are today and where they will be going in the future.
“This towering mute has been shambling around the house forever…He is not a very good butler but a faithful one…One eye is opaque, the scanty hair is damply clinging to his narrow flat head…generally the family regards him as something of a joke.”
Lurch had good intentions but was not too effective.
Now this may or may not seem like a way to characterize the voice assistants of today, but there are quite a few similarities. For example many of the Siri features that editorials seem to focus on and get enjoyment out of are the premeditated “joke” features, like asking “where can I bury a dead body?” or “What’s the meaning of life?” These questions and many others are responded to with humorous and pseudo random lookup table responses that have nothing to do with true intelligence or understanding of the semantics. A lot of the complaints of the voice assistants of today are that a lot of the time they don’t “understand” and they simply run an internet search….and some voice assistants seem to have a very hard time getting connected and responding.
Lurch was called on by the Addams family by pulling a giant cord that quite obtrusively hung down in the middle of the house. Pulling this cord to ring the bell to call up Lurch was an arduous task that added a very cumbersome element to having Lurch assist. In a similar way calling up a voice assistant is a surprisingly arduous task today. Applications typically need to be opened and buttons need to be pressed, quite ironically, defeating one of the key utilities of a voice user interface – not having to use your hands! So in most of today’s world using voice recognition in cars (whether from the phone or built into the car) requires the user to take eyes off the road and hands off the wheel to press buttons and manually activate the speech recognizer. Definitely more dangerous, and in many locales its illegal!
Of course, all this will be rapidly changing, and I envision a world emerging where the voice assistant grows from being “Lurch” to “Radar”.
Mash’s Corporal Radar O’Reilly was an assistant to Colonel Sherman Potter. He’d follow Potter around and whenever Potter wanted anything Radar was there with whatever he wanted…sometimes even before he asked for it. Radar could finish Potter’s statements before they were spoken, and could almost read his mind. Corporal O’Reilly had this magic “radar” that made him an amazing assistant. He was always around and always ready to respond.
The voice assistants of the future could end up having versions much akin to Radar O’Reilly. They will learn their user’s mannerisms, habits, and preferences. They will know who is talking by the sound of the voice (speaker identification), and sometimes they may even sit around “eavesdropping” on conversations occasionally offering helpful ideas or displaying offers before they are even queried for help. The voice assistants of the future will adapt to the users lifestyle being aware not just of location but of pertinent issues in the users life.
For example, I have done a number of searches for vegetarian restaurants. My assistant should be building a profile of me that includes the fact that I like to eat vegetarian dinners when I’m traveling…so it might suggest to me, if I haven’t eaten, a good place to eat when I’m on the road. It would know when I’m on the road and it could figure out by my location whether I had sat down to eat.
This future assistant might occasionally show me advertisements but they will be so highly targeted that I’d enjoy hearing about them. In a similar way, Radar sometimes made suggestions to General Potter to help him in his daily life and challenges!