Talking the talk: the voice-recognition disruptors looking to outsmart big tech

voice recognition

(Rahul Chakraborty, Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Candace Widdoes, Chief Operating Officer, Plug and Play & Joe Abi Akl, Acting chief corporate development officer, Majid Al Futtaim Holding


As investors, we are constantly on the search to find and propel early-stage companies redefining the technology landscape. Among them are the current breed of start-ups implementing voice technology to improve how we live, both at work and at home.

In his book, The Third Wave, Steve Case observes three generations of technology development. He describes the first wave as being when the internet became commercially available, while the second yielded the arrival of social media as major players such as Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon took their foothold as the most valuable companies in the world. Now we find ourselves in the third wave, in which the internet is becoming as ubiquitous as electricity throughout the world, digitally transforming every industry.

Given the dominance of the aforementioned second-generation companies in the consumer market, large enterprises in every industry from retail to healthcare are heavily investing in technologies that will help them remain competitive in both B2B and B2C environments. In the consumer market, this transformation has been largely driven by convenience and the unprecedented rise of the on-demand economy. In this new landscape, the likes of Uber, Deliveroo, Netflix, Spotify and Airbnb have taken a lead, offering convenience that conventional businesses have been unable to match.

Confronted by these challenges, I.AM+, led by founder and CEO Will.I.am, envisioned a solution by leveraging both the demand for convenience and the growth of voice activation through a conversational AI platform, Omega. The personal assistant enables users to fulfil their daily productivity and entertainment needs from a single interface that can integrate a variety of everyday apps, including email, calendar, retail, travel, food delivery and more. This “super app” has the potential to revolutionise consumer convenience, encouraging brand choice, while saving money and most importantly, time.

While it’s great for consumers, it’s good for business, too. With a strong focus on helping independent retailers and enterprises, its platform-neutral operating system enables retailers like Majid Al Futtaim to embed the technology within its ecosystem of brands, retaining the relationship with the customer.

Within the automotive industry, OEMs are developing their own voice assistants. Take, for example, Daimler’s engagement and heavy investment in SoundHound, a voice- and sound recognition-platform aiming to be an industry standard in automotive. Automotive suppliers like Faurecia, a leading interiors provider, are taking a more neutral approach, believing that consumers will prefer to enjoy the same experience in the car as they enjoy at home with Alexa, Google Home, or Baidu in China. “Our technology enables the integration of these third-party virtual personal assistants (VPAs) in a way that allows you to use not only the common Alexa features in your car, but also control your vehicle, your navigation, and other car-related services through Alexa,” says Dr. Alexander van Laack, consumer intelligence director at Faurecia.

The benefits are also evident in industrial operations. Mark Fosdike, CEO of Datch Systems, an intelligent voice interface for industry, and his co-founders are working to bring the cutting-edge experience of consumer devices to the heavy industrial environment. Fosdike recalls, “We were starting to get frustrated in our jobs because of the inefficiencies that we found in the general industrial software.” At night, they’d go home and wonder why the consumer device experience was so much better than the software experience at work.

His team spent a lot of time building unmanned aerial vehicles and doing IoT projects, so initially he thought he could build an IoT consolidation solution for the factory that would extract information. After touring and interviewing leaders at over 40 factories, he quickly learned that getting data into systems was the major problem.

It can take a factory worker 10-15% of his day to input data, and working with mobile devices is difficult when you have greasy fingers. Fosdike quickly came to the conclusion that voice was the best input option. Factory maintenance is only the beginning; data entry is a huge issue in every major industry, from mining to healthcare and aerospace where productivity efficiency is incredibly important. Voice represents a 4x improvement in speed compared with typing/writing, and combined with natural language processing (NLP), it can be upwards of 10x faster.

Voice in industry is about increasing productivity and extracting critical information during downtime, which can cost a company up to $50,000 per hour in lost output. If the machine can capture data inputs from every person interacting with the machine, it can diagnose or even prevent failures much more effectively.

There are still many challenges in the consumer market as well. Aigo.ai, a highly intelligent and hyper-personalized natural language intelligence platform, is working to dramatically improve the user experience for the enterprise and consumers. Srini Pagidyala, co-founder and chief value officer, says: “If you say, ‘Hey Siri, don’t tell me the weather’, it will tell you the weather. That’s the level of intelligence chatbots have achieved after nine years and billions of dollars in investment. Chatbots don’t remember what you said two sentences back, much less two days or two weeks back. They cannot learn new information interactively, they don’t understand context or complex sentences, they cannot reason or manage an ongoing meaningful conversation. The pattern-matching approach isn’t the right approach for natural language interaction.”

Aigo.ai is taking a different approach by implementing a “cognitive architeture” method fueled by a team of psychologists and linguists building a platform that is contextually aware rather than keyword-based. “Aigo’s ability to learn interactively and adapt to its users’ needs makes it much stickier,” said Pagidyala.

Similar to Datch Systems, Aigo.ai is pursuing the enterprise market (B2B and B2B2C) because it’s a more defined space, and seemed to be much easier than the consumer one, currently dominated by Amazon, Google and Apple.

What about data privacy? Pagidyala believes that data privacy is becoming mainstream and that consumers will pay for a private digital assistant. “We believe in the philosophy that your data, is your property, if someone shares it for profit, we believe they should share profits with the owner of the data, i.e., you. We are not in the data business, but we provide an assistant that serves you.”

In truth, this is new territory that has not fully been defined. There are still many unanswered questions as to what operators can do with the data harnessed from new inputs like voice. As with all new technologies, innovators must explore new territory and tackle challenges as they arise. It is the only way to progress forward.

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