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Voice - New and Improved, Thanks to AI


August 22, 2018

I try to address various technologies as their star is rising on the communications landscape. These things are difficult to predict, and the timing is usually a bit off, but it’s important for readers to know what is changing and why. In recent times I’ve written about mobility, messaging, video, desk phones, CPaaS, email, and others. Telephony is a running theme in my Rethinking Communications, and while there’s always something to talk about on this front, the underlying application – voice – doesn’t get much attention.

Voice is something we tend to take for granted, as it’s so primal for everyday communication. Depending on which side of the analog/digital divide you fall, it’s natural to associate voice with telephony. Other than conversing face-to-face, telephony was voice until the internet and VoIP came along. While that was 20ish years ago, the association still largely holds. If not using your desk phone, you’re talking on a mobile phone, or on a PC-based application. The PC scenario is interesting because the two main modes – soft phones or web platforms like Skype – are positioned as telephony solutions, but really aren’t telephony at all.

However you choose to view these scenarios, the vast majority of voice use cases in the workplace are somehow related to telephony. There may not be a huge amount of innovation around telephony these days, but voice is absolutely being re-invented – re-purposed, actually – for something entirely different. Telephony, in some form, will persist, simply because it can be such a rich and immersive mode of communication.

A Post-Telephony World?
Desk phones will be with us for years to come, but when re-thinking communications, you need to recognize that telephony isn’t the only use case for voice. In fact, as digital transformation inevitably unfolds, telephony won’t even be the most important use case. The big driver for change here is AI – artificial intelligence. More specifically, this is about underlying technologies such as NLP – natural language processing – and ML – machine learning. These fields of computer science are rapidly evolving, and have now reached the point where speech recognition accuracy from AI-based applications is on par with human speech.

This represents a major breakthrough that has profound implications for the role of voice. In the collaboration space, this means that humans can interact very effectively with computers – or any smart endpoint/device – with voice alone. We’re not quite there yet, but in due time, there will not be a need for keyboards, touchscreens, even browsers.

As the iconic satirist George Carlin mused, how can something be both new and improved? He’s right in saying it’s an oxymoron, but if you hold a positive vision for AI’s potential, both can apply to voice. Certainly, dictating an email on your PC, or instructing Amazon Alexa to organize a team meeting represent new uses for voice. Today, these capabilities are too basic to be considered an improvement over current methods, but we’re just at the beginning of what’s possible.

AI is Smarter than You May Think
The improvements will come as end users come to both trust AI, and become familiar with how new applications can automate tasks and help streamline workflows. Trust is a valid concern, as nobody wants to be on the wrong end of a conversation with HAL 9000. Once that hurdle has been crossed, the key driver is understanding that NLP and ML technologies get better the more you use them. This is the same technology behind Siri and Google Voice, and if these applications give you a better smartphone experience, it’s not a big leap to imagine how the same can happen at work.

Aside from AI speech recognition being just as accurate as human speech – and in some cases more accurate – consider other ways that voice can improve your productivity compared to how you work now. We speak faster than we type, so information can be conveyed to others more quickly. Coming the other way, humans can also take in and process verbal information at a higher rate than written communication. Furthermore, if you are a fan of multi-tasking, voice frees up your hands and eyes to be doing other things while speaking to an AI-driven interface or application.

This piece just touches on the basics, but hopefully you can see how new and improved is not just possible with voice, but highly likely, and coming soon. Re-thinking communications certainly takes many forms, but AI could well be the most exciting one yet.

Jon Arnold is a business communications analyst; principal with J Arnold & Associates; and the moderator for the Future of Work Expo, which will run Jan. 30-Feb. 1 in Fort Lauderdale.


Jon Arnold is principal of J Arnold & Associates, an independent telecom analyst and marketing consultancy with a focus on IP communications, and writes the Analyst 2.0 blog. Previously, he was the VoIP program leader at Frost & Sullivan.

Edited by Maurice Nagle




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