CES 2017: AI & Personal Assistants

The rise of the machines.  Arguably the star of CES 2017 and the subject of many a news article in the days since.  We are not talking about the dangerous sentient technology predicted by Hollywood script writers but nice, cute, helpful artificial intelligence called Melody or Alyssa or Aristotle or Alexa and even Olly.  The list goes on.  The idea of artificial intelligence has long been an expectation of when, rather than if, it will become a part of our everyday lives. We have seen over the last 10 years this pipe dream becoming a reality, partly in line with the growth of smart technology and specifically the advancement of the mobile phone.  What started off with Siri and then Cortana as personal handheld assistants has now exploded into the home.  The race is on to develop the dominant virtual assistant.

It’s estimated that 40 million homes will be using a digital personal assistant by 2021 (Tractica research).  This isn’t surprising.  The blueprint has already been written with 84% of 14-17-year-olds saying they currently use digital voice-enabled assistants (Accenture Digital Consumer Survey 2017).  Admittedly most will use these for basic tasks – setting alarms, choosing songs, checking the weather.  However, there are so many real-world applications that it’s easy to see how AI can make life easier.  Can you imagine waking up and organising your entire day without lifting a finger? Scan your fridge and automatically order your groceries, book a taxi to pick you up at the door, book a restaurant table and send that birthday card to your parents because you’re a man and it’s well-known we never remember dates.  All these things are pretty much available and more.

Amazon released Alexa, their voice activated AI in 2014.  It dominated CES 2016 and with the successful release of the Amazon Echo and Dot speakers also this year ensured it was everywhere at CES 2017.  Literally everywhere.  Amazon has created an interesting developer outreach strategy alongside their own product development. There are currently over 6,000 Alexa integrated products on the market ranging from TVs to vacuum cleaners.  This trend was evident in Las Vegas with smart connected fridges, windows and washing machines wowing the crowds.  The LG Smart Instaview Refrigerator particularly illustrated a strong use of AI allowing you to see what’s in your fridge and add items to a shopping list all through Alexa voice commands.  Then comes the inevitable integrations with car manufacturers. Both Ford and Hyundai have committed to Alexa integration in their models in 2017 as on board assistants.  This is effectively taking the ‘home’ personal assistant out of the home delivering full 360 connectivity.

So where is the competition I hear you ask?  Well, there is the Lenovo Smart Assistant, the LG Hub Robot and Emotech ‘Olly’.  The interesting point: they are all Alexa powered.  So what’s the benefit? Nothing much, albeit for a few tweaks such as an improved speaker (the Lenovo compared to the Echo) or in the case of Emotech, giving the AI more of a personality. Although these enhancements are minimal it does highlight the endless possibility with Amazon’s decision to open up its AI assistant to developers, much in the same way Google did with Android for the mobile market.

One of the more interesting developments is Mattel’s Aristotle.  This is essentially Amazon Echo but for children.  It’s been described as a virtual tutor that grows with your child, starting out as a baby monitor and evolving into reading stories, teaching a new language and helping with homework.  With children proactively consuming hours online via YouTube and their experiences with connected devices, it’s easy to see this adding value.  However, it does raise inevitable questions around children’s reliance on technology over human contact.

Overall, it’s an exciting time for brands.  The opportunities available, albeit limited currently will very quickly explode as more products make their way into the homes.  The biggest opportunity is obviously manufacturer integration with AI software, future proofing for a later date.  Looking beyond product, the key player seems to be content.  As of January 2017, Alexa has over 7,000 downloadable ‘skills’ in the Amazon Skill marketplace. A ’skill’ is something that allows you to customise your Amazon Echo which creates a more personalised experience. The most popular of which are news publishers, such as the Guardian or Sky News through to Just Eat for takeaways.  The opportunity for brands to weave in their products and deliver content that adds value to a consumer is a strong way of passively increasing both awareness and consideration.  Recently Mondelez owned Philadelphia created a Cheesecake recipe skill. This allowed consumers to search for over 50 cheesecake recipes using the Alexa voice recognition, playback the recipe step by step and purchase the necessary ingredients.  This is a great example of driving brand awareness, shifting perception and ultimately getting the product in the consumer’s hands all without an ad in sight.  There is still some way to go but an artificially intelligent future doesn’t actually look too far off.

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Luke Blackburn

Luke works as part of the Digital Development and Technology team at OMD UK. He has a broad range of experience across multiple sectors from FMCG, travel and automotive with a particular focus on ensuring clients are staying ahead of the curve and future proofing alongside emerging consumer trends.

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