Into The Unknown
Amazon Alexa layoffs close previous chapter for voice AI; new one begins
2019’s Frozen 2 wasted no time in surpassing the original Frozen, along with every other previous contender, in becoming the highest grossing animated film of all time.
The movie memorably opens with the soaring, show-stopping anthem Into The Unknown, the provocative inner dialogue of Elsa’s struggle to reject the “safe” existence seemingly earned after the events of the first film, and instead heed the clarion call back to adventure.
It’s a message told over and over and over and over again through world history, classic literature, major religions, and many other shared human experiences: safety is a mirage, pursuing it guarantees the summoning of karmic retribution and generally brutal destruction, and therefore mankind has no choice but to embrace a strange paradox: whatever safety there is in the world only lies in rejecting it.
And as these stories go, what happens next - for those surviving the journey - is the unlocking of growth, transforming into an evolved and higher-level version of ourselves now better suited to the task of serving the equally changed world around them.
And then, the cycle finds a way to start again.
Elsa figures all this out pretty quickly:
What do you want?
Cause you've been keeping me awake
Are you here to distract me, so I make a big mistake?
Or are you someone out there
Who's a little bit like me?
Who knows deep down…
…I'm not where I'm meant to be?
Every day's a little harder, as I feel my power grow.
Don't you know there's part of me that longs to go…
Into the unknown!
When the ball drops to conclude 2022 and begin 2023, we’ll be well underway with a new chapter in voice AI, and consequently, conversational AI as a whole.
With Google having ended Actions (and many previous Google Assistant executives now gone), and the news that Amazon is laying off numerous Alexa employees as part of the largest layoff in company history, the book is now written on which of the major voice AI ecosystems would emerge victorious:
It’s easy to forget how dominant Alexa was, and how heady the times of rising Echo devices were and how it seemed like there was no ceiling for where Alexa could go, back in 2016-2017.
These two articles channel the vibes from that period of time:
Google Assistant surged into prominence in 2017, resulting in the first Google Assistant-powered “smart displays” surfacing in early 2018.
The race was now on between the tech giants - Amazon, Google, Apple, Microsoft, and Samsung, all competing for voice AI supremacy.
Yes, there were plenty of independent companies back then working on speech recognition or other related voice AI / conversational AI technologies. You just never heard about them from the media. They were too busy reporting as many Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant, and occasionally Apple Siri, Microsoft Cortana, and Samsung Bixby stories as they could get their hands on.
Investors had a similarly negative outlook on the space as well. Why invest in a voice AI startup when any modicum of success would simply result in one of the big tech companies copying what they’re doing and running them out of business?
Consequently, from roughly 2015 through 2018, you had the discordant, omnipresent banging of the gong for Alexa and Google Assistant, while weirdly seeing relatively few startups emerge to either compete with Big Tech or vie to complement their offerings. (It was SoundHound’s massive $100M fundraise in 2018 that marked an inflection point for this to begin to change.)
Big Tech’s voice AI dominance both propelled the space forward in countless ways while holding it back in critical ones at the same time.
The pandemic ultimately served as a transform function on the entire conversational AI domain, accelerating numerous existing trends already in progress.
Yes, Alexa is still a force, but an increasingly restrained one that is currently recalibrating for a next move. Google Assistant’s teams have similarly gone dark.
The declining fortune and performance of big tech players has resulted in the exact opposite for the space as a whole, with the number of acquisitions in the space, beginning to grow in 2019 and early 2020, exploding during the pandemic.
The most obvious example of conversational AI success and long-term impact has been the move toward conversational AI-powered contact centers. Underway prior to the pandemic, this movement went full supernova once COVID settled in and re-defined how this entire area of modern organizations functions.
What’s happening now with restaurants is following a similar pattern. McDonalds wisely moved early, acquiring Apprente to integrate voice AI across the entire chain back in the summer of 2019.
Once COVID hit? Labor was so disrupted and consumer patterns so different that restaurants of almost all types have rushed to integrate conversational AI, in one form or another, within their operations.
Every industry has witnessed accelerated adoption of conversational AI, and is now a fundamentally different place than it was at the beginning of 2020.
Alongside this industry-wide evolution, the public has now made its way back to many pre-COVID mindsets. No clearer sign exists that we’ve collectively turned the page from the pandemic than what has happened with Facebook/Meta’s “Portal” device.
Prior to COVID: Facebook Portal is anti-privacy trash; prices slashed aggressively in response to poor sales
COVID arrives: Wow, this Facebook Portal thing is useful! Privacy doesn’t matter when you’re fighting for survival. Give me one stat! Actually, make it two!
COVID ends: Wow, who bought this? Wait, we did? What were we thinking? Get rid of it! Get rid of the whole thing!
The unceremonious end of the Portal is an important footnote as we turn the page to the next chapter of conversational AI and certainly voice technology as a subset of that: with privacy restored as an important societal issue, big tech’s offerings now have a higher bar of utility to clear to be justifiable in the home or office.
The final piece of groundwork laid at our feet as we begin the next chapter is the buzzy embrace of what is called “generative AI,” the term used for machine learning-based spontaneous creation of content (whether words, or visuals, or some combination of both) usually based on human-provided parameters.
Voice AI is a subset of conversational AI, which encompasses not just voice, but chat and other language-based modalities. Conversational AI contemplates functionality that creates content on the fly as needed, therefore was essentially generative AI before generative AI became the word that VCs throw at each other to sound smart. Generative AI does extend to plenty of use cases that don’t involve language, and therefore aren’t conversational in nature, but conversational AI is a significant component and intertwined piece of this new area of focus.
A bias toward smaller, independent AI companies over big tech solutions, alongside a hip affectation toward generative AI that has brought large amounts of new attention and coverage to the existing conversational AI domain, creates forceful, but favorable, market conditions for companies carving out their market position heading into 2023.
The future we talked about in 2017 has arrived: Amazon and Google won’t be kept down forever, Apple and Samsung and Microsoft continue to work diligently to build conversational AI products and services as well, but the window is open these next 3-5 years for massive acquisitions of independent companies doing great work.
All happening, for a relatively brief moment in time, without regulation impeding on corporate growth, as government has only begun to think about ethical consequences of AI and, at least here in the United States, is years away from meaningful impact.
Into the unknown!
For those interested in the publishing and technology landscape, Digital Book World’s virtual event DBW Global takes place Wednesday. Registration is complimentary and available here. (Registration for the in-person Digital Book World 2023 conference, January 16-18 in NYC, is here.)
Project Voice 2023 announced earlier this week the addition of CX Forums and Conversation Design Institute to the growing program. We’ve talked about this before: this will be a large, watershed event you won’t want to miss, especially if you’ve managed to read this newsletter all the way down here. Registration is here.