Top 10 Voice Tech / Conversational AI Storylines of 2020

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Here they are: the top 10 storylines for voice technology and conversational AI coming out of 2020 and heading into 2021.

10) Amazon wrecks actual Alexa name

At Project Voice 2020, Lauren Johnson spoke about how her daughter (named Alexa) has suffered bullying and intimidation at school thanks to constant jokes around Amazon’s popular voice assistant carrying the same name.

Her public awareness campaign has gathered size and strength, as more and more actual Alexas have joined the chorus in saying their lives have been negatively affected by Amazon’s Alexa.

This is a polarizing issue. Some have an unsympathetic “suck it up” attitude on the topic, while others view it as yet another area where big tech can do whatever it damn well pleases without any fear of repercussion or consequence.

Amazon will undoubtedly face antitrust action sooner rather than later, and this is precisely the type of story the company doesn’t want to have show up in that environment and punctuate a rallying cry for action against them.

Few expect them to change Alexa’s name at this point, but they could show some self-awareness and compassion and at least acknowledge the issue. If they really seized the opportunity, there’s a hidden PR win lurking in there.

9) The pandemic silences privacy concerns…temporarily

Privacy used to be discussed in the very next sentence after someone brought up Alexa, Google Assistant, smart speakers, or anything else voice-related.

The pandemic muted the entire issue, but just for a fleeting moment. And it’s important to note that many voice tech and conversational AI interests have been able to grow and flourish this year, without that privacy check in place.

This will change almost immediately as we get into 2021, and you’ll start to hear the media pipe back up about privacy again. But not hearing about it was interesting while it lasted.

8) Bixby survives Google/Samsung buyout bid

In a truly fascinating subplot from this year, Google went full-knives-out at Bixby this year in an attempt to get Samsung to replace their own voice assistant with Google Assistant across their various devices and hardware.

This didn’t work, but did an excellent job waking up various parts of the voice and AI community to the reality of how truly competitive the space is now - so much so that Google apparently thinks the best path to additional market share is to buy it from a competitor.

7) Voice and gaming take a big step forward

There are some robust, independent players in the voice gaming space, whether Tom Hewitson’s Labworks.io, the Wilsons’ Matchbox.io, and others. 2020 has been a good year for them, with people sheltering at home and seeking out new types of entertainment.

Where I want to focus, though, is on the big moves Amazon and Google have both made in this space. First, Amazon created Starfinder, a spectacular and ambitious role-playing game specifically for Alexa. Amazon has a history of seeing value in having quality games available on Alexa and, more specifically, pushing the envelope on what’s possible with voice. This effort moves the entire industry forward.

Then, Google partnered with Zynga to release Daily Word Wheel exclusively on Google Assistant, which again signals how Google views the competitiveness of the space, while also showing that Google won’t be left behind when it comes to entertainment on their voice assistant.

How long until we see big tech make some additional acquisitions in this space? I would guess not too much longer.

6) Conversational AI now a defining attribute of modern contact centers

We partnered with our friends at Bespoken and did an entire two-day event on this toward the end of 2020.

One thing was clear: contact centers, and modern customer support operations, view conversational AI as almost an essential. The technology is far from a “nice to have” - rather, the ROI is exceptionally well understood and companies are rushing to get into this space, both on the buyer and seller side.

Soak in that last paragraph. Three or four years ago, this would’ve been hard to imagine.

5) Voice/AI funding activity explodes, acquisition activity accelerating

Where would you even begin talking about this? There’s so much money coming into the space now, it would demand its own newsletter. Every other story on Voicebot.ai is seemingly about a company getting funded. It’s profound.

I expect to see M&A activity uptick in 2021, not only as a function of people meeting in person again, but also as the competitive landscape continues to tighten. There’s only so many people and organizations doing killer work in the space, and they’re becoming more valuable.

4) “Touchless” enters the public vernacular

The pandemic did everyone working with voice technology and conversational AI a tremendous favor: it eliminated altogether the need to explain the value in what you’re doing. You can now do that with a single word: “touchless.”

That one little word has caused the accelerated adoption of voice tech by multiple sectors, namely hospitality, healthcare, retail, and banking, to name a few. These verticals already had plenty of movement, but the pandemic shoved everything forward in a way that’s hard to immediately quantify.

3) Voice as an interface seen as savior for tired mobile apps

Tired: Mobile apps.

Wired: Mobile apps, with voice integrated as a value-added, thoughtful interface.

Hired: Companies working to provide mid-size to large companies with voice-enabled mobile apps, as we head into 2021.

2) GPT-3

A lot has been said about GPT-3 and its promise is immense.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about it as an ecosystem that itself represents a new competitor for talent and investment, potentially siphoning it away from the mainstream voice ecosystems (Alexa, Google Assistant, Siri, Bixby, etc).

From that standpoint, its gravitational pull has caused and will continue to cause the shape of the marketplace to evolve, likely in a very positive way.

1) Amazon vs. Google

For the last 4-5 years, the movements of these two behemoths have defined the entire scope and size of the voice/AI sandbox.

It won’t stay this way forever, but heading into 2021, how these singular two companies compete against each other for talent and resources, as well as how they market and promote themselves to the world, will not only shape their own relationship, but the size and nature of entire markets around this technology.

One smart move both companies could make is to join the Open Voice Network as members and supporters. Anything either of these companies can do to demonstrate they are meaningful contributors to an open ecosystem and not playing favorites will help them as they reckon with regulators throughout the upcoming year.

Happy new year to the 20,000+ subscribers as well as another roughly 10,000+ syndicated audience for This Week In Voice VIP.

Get some rest. You’ll need it in 2021.

The full Project Voice Series lineup for 2021 has been announced.

These events, both physical and virtual, are listed below (and includes the 35-city Project Voice: Coast to Coast dates):

San Jose, CA - January 11 - Barebottle Brewing Company
San Francisco, CA - January 12 - Fable
Los Angeles, CA - January 13 - Pineapple Hill Saloon and Grill
Phoenix, AZ - January 14 - CiBO Pizzeria
Miami, FL - January 18 - Glass and Vine
Tampa, FL - January 19 - Cafe Dufrain
Orlando, FL - January 20 - The Stubborn Mule
Jacksonville, FL - January 21 - Hoptinger Bier and Sausage House
Portland, OR - January 25 - OK Omens
Seattle, WA - January 26 - Lady Jaye
Spokane, WA - January 27 - Prohibition
Boise, ID - January 28 - Cloud 9 Brewery

Voice Tech Innovation Week (February 1-5)

Salt Lake City, UT - February 8 - East Liberty Tap House
Denver, CO - February 9 - Acova
Cheyenne, WY - February 10 - Accomplice Beer Company
Omaha, NE - February 11 - Jackson Street Tavern

Thursday, February 18: The Voice of Mobile Apps (virtual)

Boston, MA - February 22
New York City, NY - February 23
Newark, NJ - February 24
Philadelphia, PA - February 25
Washington, DC - February 26

Wednesday, March 3: The Voice of Marketing (virtual)

Minneapolis, MN - March 8
Milwaukee, WI - March 9
Chicago, IL - March 10
St. Louis, MO - March 11
Nashville, TN - March 12
Memphis, TN - March 15
Jackson, MS - March 16
New Orleans, LA - March 17
Dallas, TX - March 18
Houston, TX - March 19

Thursday, March 25: The Voice of Customer Service REMIX (virtual)

Detroit, MI - March 29
Columbus, OH - March 30
Cleveland, OH - March 31
Cincinnati, OH - April 1

Project Voice 2021: April 12-14, Chattanooga TN

Project Voice Worldwide: April 15-16 (virtual)

Thursday, May 13: The Voice of the Car Summit East (Detroit, Michigan)

Thursday, May 20: The Voice of the Car Summit West (San Jose, California)

Euphonious: June 18-20, Birmingham AL

July 12-14: Digital Book World West (Seattle, WA)

August 4-5: The Voice of Healthcare Summit (Harvard Medical School, Boston MA)

August 25: The Voice of Gaming (Austin, TX)

September 13-15: Digital Book World 2021 (Nashville, TN)

September 16-17: DBW Global (virtual)

October 6-7: The Voice of Money (New York City)

November 3-4: The Voice of Customer Service (Dallas, TX)