Voice assistants: from yesterday to tomorrow

Ok Google, Alexa, say Siri… Those words, almost everyone has heard. No wonder, because voice assistants are constantly spreading. By 2024, this market should represent $7.5 billion. However, it was almost non-existent 11 years ago, when Siri was launched on the iPhone 4S. This remark should not overshadow another: user criticism and distrust of voice assistants have not disappeared, on the contrary. To assess this topic, Siècle Digital spoke with two experts. The first is Joseph Duru, Vice President of Audio Experience at Sonos. The second is Luke Julia, co-founder of Siri, Apple’s assistant.


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The Origin of Voice Assistants: The Internet and the 1990s

Voice assistants are becoming popular. They are part of the daily lives of hundreds of millions of people around the world. But basically, what is a voice assistant? According to the National Commission on Computing and Liberties (CNIL), the voice assistant is ” A set of software resources that makes it possible to carry out voice and language processing in order to respond to a user’s request “.

Today they are everywhere. In smartphones, cars or even in homes. However, this technology is not so old, although it is possible to find its origins as early as the 1990s, those were the years of computer development. With this trend, software that some might call voice assistants are being developed. They let the user dictate what he wanted to type. The Dragon Dictate is one of the first of its kind, which appeared in 1993.

At the same time, the 90s are also the beginning of the Internet and search engines. It becomes access to an infinite amount of information. Some wonder what is the best way to query this data. This is the case of the French who immigrated to the United States. Between the advent of the Internet and the advent of software, an idea will come to him: Create a virtual assistant that can be discussed with him and can provide answers to our questions. This guy is Luke Julia, co-creator of Siri, Apple’s assistant: ” You would have thought it was going to be a little cricket on our shoulders, which we were going to talk to all day long, it was kind of an idea, the concept in 9 years0 “.

Originally, therefore, the idea was to go much further, to create true conversational agents. However, the technologies used have advanced since 2011.” In the years 2013-2014 a new type of assistant (…) arrived. Instead of using machine learning, we used deep learning, so there’s something more powerful ‘ explains Luke Julia. Alexa harnesses the full potential of this technology “, notice.

Machine learning allows algorithms to learn, which improves their performance in performing a particular task. Deep learning is a machine learning technique that allows algorithms to learn more complex rules and perform more advanced tasks.

“A lot of users had microphones on their systems, but didn’t use them”

Today, voice assistants are present in the daily lives of hundreds of millions of people. For example, 100 million Americans regularly use the voice assistant. In France, according to a study conducted by Isoskéle for LaPoste in 2021, at least 20 million French people use voice assistants. The penetration rate has been on the rise in the richest countries since 2011. In the end, more than one in two people in France uses the voice assistant.

In this market, three assistants stand out: Alexa, Google Assistant, and Siri. Some giants embarked on the adventure, but to no avail. There was, for example, Bixby from Samsung or Cortana from Microsoft. However, these three are the most prevalent and multitasking. They can answer many questions, and offer several types of services, such as playing music, or scheduling reminders. This is one of two types of helpers that exist. Others specialize in an area, a task. Like Sonos Assistant, Sonos Voice Control was launched in June 2022 in the United States.

The latter can only be used on Sonos speakers, and only for music control. By operating it, it responds to the main criticisms and concerns of consumers: the management of personal data and confidentiality. ” We’ve made a note: We’ve had a lot of users who had microphones on their Sonos systems, but didn’t use them. “Says Joseph Duru, Vice President of Audio Experience at Sonos.” When asked why, the reason they give is concern for their privacy “, He says.

Users are still very suspicious

Users in fact are still very careful. According to a Sonos expert, the primary issue with voice assistants is ” Personal data management “.

According to a study conducted by Microsoft in 2019, 41% of virtual assistant users don’t trust their devices for privacy and passive listening reasons. The fear that Alexa is constantly listening to users is widespread. Fear has no reason to be according to Luke Julia. ” We have to be clear, they are not quite as crazy as Apple, Amazon, and others. They still make big mistakes. So when we say “Alexa always listens to us”, it’s not true. Siri’s creator confirms. Nothing is kept. It is analyzed to improve the model and is anonymous. In the general terms of use, never read it, but everything that is marked ‘, is the detail.

Thus, multitasking assistants, using deep learning technology, are the most unique, since they work in the cloud. They collect a lot of data. The data may be resold to advertising partners, which is a regulated but not illegal practice. Developing and operating such assistants is expensive, so companies need to find sources of funding. Selling personal data is one of them. Just like advertising distribution. Amazon, for example, plans to have Alexa answer common and essential questions with ads.

Finally, voice assistants are chosen for the way they interact and respond to them at certain times. In 2019, UNESCO published a report condemning sexual stereotypes of some voice assistants. In particular, he criticizes the way personal assistants are programmed to respond to verbal aggression with sentences with sexual connotations. For example, for a while, when insulted ” Tell Siri, you bitch ‘ replied the Apple Assistant. If I could blush “.

Local Voice Assistants, the solution? ” impossible “

Thus, the indigenous technology that Sonos uses responds to most of these criticisms. “Our assistant is not a generalist, he is focused on controlling the music, the system,” Joseph Douro explains. “ By changing the perimeter of the assistant, it allows you to have a different solution in terms of privacy, since all processing of what you say is done locally, on the assistant you are talking to. ”, he continues. According to him, this solution will also make it possible to obtain faster and more accurate assistants.

Who do you think is the future? This is impossible », answers by Luc Julia. ” The local is interesting but limited. You must imagine that you own all the internet on your local machine “, he insists.” We have positive feedback, many people tell us that this is the solution they have been waiting for ‘, keeps Joseph Dureux by his side.

Thus the tendency towards local work can spread and develop, but on the condition that there are highly specialized assistants. In order for them to be able to answer a plethora of questions, there are no jobs other than the cloud. One solution is not having one assistant for many tasks, but several highly specialized assistants. Anyway, this is one of the developments that Luke Julia imagined” Now imagine that with helpers everywhere. One permission for the oven, one for the fridge, another for the lamps, the music. They will all be specialized and there I think that makes sense. It will be much less in terms of technology, but it will be more efficient for users. “.

So there are still many challenges for voice assistants and their manufacturers. Building trust with users, increasing transparency in the use of personal data, but also improving interactions. For Luke Julia, the dialogue will be the biggest advance,” What could be improved, the trophy, the thing we would like to have, is something more conversational. Today they are very far from being conversational agents “.

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