Article

Tim Carter
Tim Carter 26 October 2018

KITT was the original voice-search engine

In 2017, 46% of adults in the US reported using voice-controlled smart assistants (Pew Research Center). Some are predicting that as soon as 2020 50% of all searches will be carried out by voice engines. With the tech still in its infancy, limitations are well known, and problems are expected. Furthermore, shopping currently accounts for only 1% of all activities undertaken through voice assistants, so is the new tech actually important to brands and retailers? And if search is as far as current opportunities go, what does the future look like?

The main protagonist of Knight Rider, the 80's hit TV series, was an indestructible black Pontiac Firebird which went by the acronym KITT (Knight Industries Two Thousand to those non-Gen X). This was a vehicle way ahead of its time with an Artificially Intelligent electronic computer module, essentially an advanced supercomputer on wheels, which could - yes - talk to you and search deep in itself for answers.

The "brain" of KITT was the Knight 2000 microprocessor which formed the centre of a "self-aware" cybernetic logic module that allowed KITT to think, learn, communicate and interact, mainly with the likes of his owner, Michael Knight, the leather-jacketed ‘lone crusader in a dangerous world,’ as played by David Hasselhoff. KITT had 1,000 megabits of memory with an incredible one nanosecond access time (the time delay between a voice command to its electronic system, and the access being completed).

So why the throwback? Arguably KITT was way ahead of its time, perhaps the original Smart Assistant. Siri’s arrival on the iPhone 4s back in 2011 was a whole 29 years after KITT. Amazon gave birth to Alexa in 2014. A whole host of others have come along since (Hey, Google, you included). These are designed to get smarter every day; the more you use them, the more their service supposedly adapts to speech patterns, vocabulary, and personal preferences. Indeed, requests to Alexa are subsequently used by Amazon to train their speech recognition and natural language understanding systems. Some may argue that voice is the trojan horse utilised by different vendors to achieving Artificial Intelligence loyalty (i.e. the smart assistant being the lock-in to the platform), the long-term win being achieving AI loyalty as a result of those AI platforms ‘learning’ about their users.

That learning is the key to getting ahead and yet voice technology itself has still some way to go, with some claiming that interactions with smart assistants are plagued with problems, such as poor comprehension of commands and limitations in verbal output. However, the reality is that ‘hands-free’ usability largely outweighs the annoyance of poor usability, with 46% of U.S. adults reported using voice-controlled smart assistants in 2017 (source: Pew Research Center).

With shopping and transactions accounting for just 1% of the most common activities undertaken through a voice assistant and information retrieval accounting for 40%, perhaps they offer most value to brands as search and recommendation engines first and foremost. If your brand rated highly in tests and is lauded by other users, a combination of independent and social proof could prove to be an attractive mix, bolstered by some paid search ability somewhere down the line (Amazon’s Alexa will eventually introduce Google-like paid search), which is when structure and design for voice search becomes important.

For successful completion of a task, consumers will initially be required to state both the product and brand when querying via the voice assistant but as these systems mature, machine learning will take over and algorithms will learn to predict consumer preferences and purchase habits. Thereby, it will recommend the preferred brand whenever consumers ask for a product in future. With some predicting that by 2020, 50% of all searches will be carried out via voice, it would seem there is a real opportunity for brands to become part of the conversation in this new ‘voice-search-to-purchase’ shopper journey.

But it’s not all about search. For brands it can be about repeat-purchase too as well as leveraging the technology to initiate an order – your voice-controlled TV remote realising it’s low on batteries and it prompting Panasonic batteries to be added to your Amazon basket or your smart washing machine running low on its tank of detergent and re-ordering Tide for example. And it’s not just brands that voice is appealing to; retailers are taking steps to test the technology too. Argos was the UK’s first retailer to offer a shopping service via the Google Assistant platform, allowing customers to reserve products in a local store using a Google Home smart speaker. Experimentation was key here for Argos’ Chief Executive John Rogers: “if we can make it a seamless process, you can see why people would want to use it.”

Handling the inevitable – i.e. what if there is no answer? what if there is no stock? – may present a challenge in the future. But I guess it’ll probably (machine) learn one over time…

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