In 2011, Siri - originally intended as a standalone iOS app - was introduced alongside the iPhone 4S in its beta version. With the release of Siri, Apple device owners could now send texts, emails, make appointments, search the web, just by talking to their phones.
Seven years ago, this new technology seemed exclusive to Apple device owners, but that is no longer the case. Tech firms have since been on the line to provide humans with their interpretation of voice-powered AIs; from Microsoft’s Cortana and Amazon’s Alexa. This is mainly due to the rapid pace at which virtual digital assistants are being used, and the increasing number of people who agree it is a part of their everyday lives. After all, the Virtual Digital Assistant (VDA) worldwide market size is currently estimated at $5.21bn, a number set to be slightly under 2 billion people when projecting the number of digital assistant users worldwide by 2021.
All of these beg some questions: Are digital assistants really that intelligent? Are they really that effective in performing tasks? What is the future of Natural Language Processing (NLP) - the form of artificial intelligence that helps technology interpret human language - in analyzing, and parsing voice output, and improving the current level of AI? How, or rather when is this technology going to be available for the African market?
While the nature of intelligence, especially in the context of artificial intelligence is still a fairly complex topic, digital assistants have been able to achieve some level of success. They are used to perform routine tasks like making and receiving phone calls, checking weather forecasts, traffic updates, news, and even make personalized recommendations. As we move towards a more sustainable development model in the innovation process, it is important to consistently re-imagine the future of digital interactive actions in a world of internet-enabled, connected intelligence.
Consider Google Home - the brand of smart speakers developed by Google. Released globally in 2017, Google says you “control your smart home with your voice”, and even that may be a sophisticated way of describing it. Google Home is basically the Google Assistant, built into a speaker, aimed at making life easier for its users.
Google isn’t the first company to offer smart speakers to consumers despite recent studies showing that there are now 14 million Google Home units in U.S. homes. For example, the Amazon Echo was launched in 2015 and commands nearly 72% market share of current U.S smart speaker owners, according to a Voicebot Smart Speaker Consumer Adoption Report published this year.
However, with the pricing of the Google Home, the company has revitalized the artificial intelligence race. Overtime, the plan is to catch up due to their appeal to a wider income class.
An African Narrative
Already, today, quite a number of smart speaker applications are being imagined for various markets. This is especially important in a market like Africa’s, where its digitally competent consumer base is distributed across the different income levels. Google also offers its smart speaker in 3 variants: Google Home, Google Home Mini, and Google Home Max - possibly in recognition of the different set of users the product is being sold to. While the Home Max is built for high quality indoor and outdoor audio output, the Home Mini offers a lesser priced option that can be easily adopted by Africa’s middle and low income class. It’s important to note that the Home Mini doesn’t compromise on quality, and is also packed with all the features of the digital assistant.
Indeed, there are several challenges in Africa that a tech gadget like this can help solve. Take for instance in the area of health, where patient adherence remains a primary healthcare problem in Africa. A smart speaker can be set to remind patients of clinic appointments, when it’s time to take their drugs, and provide health tips. The health of many patients with cardiovascular diseases - a top health challenge in Africa - can also be improved by monitoring their hearts’ conditions continuously in such a way that the patient’s doctor is aware of a pending heart attack even before they feel the pain.
Another sector smart speaker can help transform is the farming industry - especially in rural Africa. The continent is projected to be home to about 2 billion people by 2050, which means farm productivity must accelerate at a faster rate than the global average to avoid continued mass hunger. A smart speaker could provide periodic notifications to monitor crop growth and enable farmers monitor deviations from normal growth. While it’s still common for farmers to plant according to the phases of the moon, they can get real time weather updates so as to know the best periods to plant certain crops. This can potentially improve farm productivity and reduce input waste by using analytics to facilitate data-driven farming practices for small-scale farmers.
Even designing the product to use local accents and dialects for easier understanding and acceptance by the market. Talking about use cases, one of the more popular functions of the smart speaker is its ability to provide up-to-date traffic reports. Imagine if in this part of the world, we commenced the use of smart speakers notifying users of mishap on preferred routes, as it affected the user’s already predefined Google calendar. This feature is called “proactive assistance”- a notification system for things which Google Home finds useful to the user. With the unpredictable nature of road traffic in Africa’s major cities, information readily available right before leaving the home could be the difference between being on time for appointments, or not.
Of course, all of these is still conceptual. Most companies that build smart speakers still haven’t made them available here, with the general perception of the continent as a potential market still largely prevalent. However, with the new problem-solving solutions they can bring to Africa in general, smart speakers can be the next flag bearers of a technological revolution.
In 2018, with solutions like these on offer, it’s no wonder we are witnessing a remarkable rise in the pervasiveness of smart speakers; one that is nearly unprecedented in the history of consumer electronics. A Smart Audio report found that 3/4 of all smart speaker owners have owned their device for less than one year, with the balance (26%) falling into the first adopters category. Perhaps there’s a current awareness of the multi-functional usefulness of these gadgets, the potential of connected devices, and the reasonable price at which they are offered.
It’s crucial to note that the evolution of technology like smart speakers stem from a desire to be connected consistently to the Internet - which is true everywhere in the world. As a result of this, “The Internet of Things” (IoT) - a term used to describe the connection of everything from gadgets to ordinary objects, to the Internet, has become a piece of our culture.
While it may not seem like the urgent need of the hour in Africa, understanding the capabilities of these devices make them appealing. With home automation and IoT poised to grow in the future, a piece of technology that make our lives easier is not a hard sell. The Google Home also largely delivers on primarily being an excellent digital assistant: it answers personalized questions, can access several internet services, and make hands-free phone calls.
In conclusion, the evolution of Wi-Fi-enabled smart devices means we have to deal with communicating with them. This means we can have conversations with them, the same way we talk to one another when we need to get things done. An effect of the Internet of Things is that smartphones will become not only our portal into this interconnected ecosystem, but a control to our lives: enabling access to information on the go, and completion of automated tasks.
With more features including “visual responses” and a willingness to adapt their products and services for the non-American user, the Google Home has the potential of being the revolutionary device that changes the perception of IoT in Africa.
Just like the earlier trends of mobile phones, laptops - and most recently wearable tech - the current rate of usage won’t remain low forever. In the not too distant future, Africans will be talking to home assistants that not only help with task-oriented commands, but also goal-oriented ones.