Voice-activated technology such as Amazon’s Echo speakers, Google Home and Siri have proved incredibly popular amongst consumers, with Amazon selling over 3 million Echo devices through 2016.

The current crop of voice activated appliances all work in a similar way: you talk to a far-field microphone embedded in the device, your voice input is sent away to the cloud and processed, and the device speaks back through speakers in real time.

While currently mainly popular as consumer technology, I believe voice activated technology can and will prove its worth within a corporate environment too. Here’s why:

Optimized for today’s office

The trend towards open plan offices has really caught on in the UK and the US in the last decade. The open plan office took root in tech startups like Google, before spreading to media, advertising, architecture and other established industries.  It’s no surprise that Facebook designed the largest open-floor plan in the world, housing nearly 3,000 engineers. Even Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is said to work at an open plan desk.

Voice assistants are a great fit for the open-plan office because they are optimized for hands-free, ambient use. The magic of these assistants is that they have a purpose-built microphone that is designed to understand speech anywhere in a room (after hearing a “wake word” such as “Alexa” or “Ok Google”) and a speaker system that allows human ears to hear a response – from anywhere in the room.

Most open plan offices already have a radio for playing music – why not have a “radio” that anyone in the room can instantly access not just to play music, but to complete tasks and display business metrics too?

Developers love them

Fewer than ten years ago, the idea that we would today have access to a supercomputer that we could access through voice seemed far-fetched. It did however seem obvious that this interface would be incredibly effective and appealing.

Today this is a reality, but instead of accessing an on-premise supercomputer we are accessing Amazon or Google’s cloud. This is in fact, much better. We don’t all need to buy our own supercomputer, we just rent Amazon’s for a bit.

It appears from our limited perspective that Amazon Echo will only ever be a limited purpose device for setting timers and alarms. But I think the opposite is true.

The future of virtual assistants isn’t smartphones and PCs that result in a lot of duplicated effort, but specialized business applications that are custom built for individual businesses.

Alexa has an open API, meaning that anyone can make Alexa skills. Just as we have app developers today, we will soon have “skill developers” who can go into a business and identify processes that can be improved and optimized with voice activated technology.

Business intelligence and analytics

One particularly strong application could be in business analytics and intelligence. Gartner forecasted that the worldwide business intelligence and analytics market will reach $18.3bn in 2017, with much of the increased usage being driven by extensibility and embeddability.

Gartner predicted that both internal users and customers would either use more automated tools or embed analytics in the applications they use in their context, or both.

The ability to follow news and Twitter feeds for mention of certain names and products, give live insight into key business metrics such as monthly active users, and sort through emails for certain keywords and alert you in real time could be a boon for productivity. Amazon’s recent announcement of the “Echo Show,” the first Echo device to feature a screen, gives us a tantalising glimpse of what will soon be possible.

Much of the information you currently check a smartphone for could be reimagined as a voice update, which explains the current interest in building new Alexa skills. While developers are currently focused on building consumer applications such as hyperlocal weather skill Big Sky, the really big benefits of technologies like Alexa could come in the enterprise.

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