5 November, 2018 - 14:07 By Tony Quested

Happy birthday Alexa, a brainchild born in Cambridge

Tomorrow marks the fourth birthday of Amazon’s Alexa – IP born in Cambridge via the fertile brain of True Knowledge and Evi Technologies founder William Tunstall-Pedoe.

The entrepreneur sold voice recognition company Evi to Amazon in 2012 for around $26 million and, baby, look at the technology now!

As has been widely reported after three years at Amazon, Tunstall-Pedoe left to pursue other AI projects but the US giant continued to use the core IP to sculpt what would become Alexa and its band of assorted brothers and sisters in the voice controlled device word.

Its success was one of the reasons why competitor Apple, also now growing in Cambridge, paid the thick end of $100m for another tech tyro in this cluster – VocalIQ, whose founders Professor Steve Young and Blaise Thompson now work for Apple to further develop the Siri family.

Strategy thought leader Accenture, which also has Cambridge operations – at Milton Hall – keeps a well manicured finger on the pulse of a great many technologies and has marked Alexa’s anniversary with some timely research on the voice controlled device market.

Its observations show that there is massive headroom for global growth in the sector – which may explain the size and timings of Amazon’s and Apple’s acquisitions in Cambridge.

Accenture says that the impact of voice-controlled devices is only growing “as they pop-up in more and more of our homes.” And as it points it, birthdays may be a time for reflection but they also offer the opportunity to look at what the future holds for voice assistants generally.

Recent Accenture research found that, despite increasing adoption of the technology, there are still significant barriers.

More than a quarter of respondents quizzed said they shied away from using their device to make payments; well over a quarter worried about transferring money and using it to pay bills. This reluctance, for more than half of people stemmed from concerns about security or a fear of being hacked and having their personal details stolen.

Then there is the ‘spy in the room’ factor: More than one in five admitted to leaving the room or lowering their voice to make sure their device couldn’t spy on them! Nearly half believed the technology was always listening – even when they’ve not been given a command.

Accenture said: “While voice assistants mean sophisticated functionality is just a simple command away, most people use theirs for only basic tasks. 

“On average, users are speaking to their voice assistant four times a day – more often than they speak to their family – but they are still most likely to use it to answer a random question or find out a fact (54 per cent), followed by checking the weather forecast (50 per cent) and listening to music (45 per cent).

“More than one in five admit they don’t use their voice assistant more because they don’t trust it. The average user is taking advantage of only six of their device’s skills, which is barely the tip of the iceberg when some devices have over 45,000 to choose from.”

Emma Kendrew, Artificial Intelligence lead for Accenture, adds: “The take-up for voice assistants has been big – especially when you consider they’re a very new technology. 

“However, many people are not using them to their full potential because of trust issues. There are a lot of misconceptions out there about how these voice assistants work.”

All of which will no doubt be music to the ears of Amazon and Apple and others on the voice assistant market A-list as they realise the potential for a massive suture spike in revenues.

Remember where you heard it first – and in this case it wasn’t your voice assistant!

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