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Troy Wolverton: At CES, voice assistants assert themselves

Troy Wolverton, The Mercury News on

Published in Business News

LAS VEGAS -- In the very near future, instead of controlling your gadgets by pressing buttons or tapping on screens, you may just talk to them.

Intelligent assistant technology like Apple's Siri and Amazon's Echo is starting to spread widely. At this year's recently concluded CES, numerous companies showed off devices ranging from refrigerators to plush dolls that respond to voice commands and queries.

"Intelligent assistants allow for a more intuitive way to interact with all these devices," said John Curran, managing director of consulting company Accenture's communications, media and technology practice.

Voice control by itself isn't new. Consumers have been able to dial phone numbers on cellphones or interact with automated phone service systems using only their voice for more than a decade. Apple's Siri has been around for more than six years and was joined more recently by Microsoft's Cortana, the Google Assistant and Alexa.

What is new is that voice control is starting to become more commonplace. Apple and Amazon are working with smart home companies so their products can be controlled by Siri and Alexa, respectively. Amazon is starting to widely license its Alexa technology so that it can be built into other devices. Now even smaller companies can incorporate Alexa or similar features.

Helping drive this are rapid advancements in voice recognition. The first voice recognition systems that debuted in the 1990s had extraordinarily high error rates; they had a super-difficult time recognizing spoken words. Even as recently as 2013, such systems had an error rate of about 23 percent, said Shawn DuBravac, chief economist at the Consumer Technology Association, which puts on CES.

But now, about three years later, such systems have reached near parity with humans.

"We've made more progress in the last 30 months than in first 30 years," he said, adding that "the next computer interface is voice."

The most prevalent area where voice control is showing up is in smart speaker systems. Amazon pioneered that category with the Echo two years ago and was joined in the market by Google Home this past fall. But it will soon have a whole host of other competitors.

Some of these new smart speaker systems, like Lenovo's Smart Assistant, not only look like the Echo, they also will employ its Alexa voice assistant technology. Others, though, look and act distinctly different.

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