AI voice assistants won't just book your meetings, they'll partake in them

Imagine asking Cortana about your revenue last quarter.

That could be the future, according to Gartner analyst Svetlana Sicular. At the Gartner Data and Analytics Summit, Sicular discussed some of the technical challenges that still need solving before voice AI assistants can approximate human-to-human conversation. (For example, AI voice assistants are still pretty bad at understanding context, such as how time of day might change the meaning of what is being said.) She also offered advice to digital leaders on how to incorporate conversational AI technologies into their artificial intelligence plans. And she touched upon something else: the coming onslaught of business applications for AI voice assistants, courtesy of every AI and AI-adjacent vendor out there.

“Every single participant [in the voice AI market] is preparing for the business,” Sicular said. “Every single one is creating business capabilities.”

The capabilities of AI voice assistants are still nascent, she said, and definitely on the simpler side — booking a conference room, scheduling a meeting for multiple people or reading emails. But Sicular foresees a time in the not-so-distant future when voice AI assistants in the workplace — or “employee assistants,” as she referred to them — are not just booking meetings but are an active participant in those meetings.

In those meetings, voice AI assistants could relay business data and analytics to employees. It’s all about “making your analytics talk,” Sicular emphasized. These employee assistants couldn’t voice a report of thousands of lines at once, she noted, but they could convey top insights and changes in the data.

One way in which some financial institutions and other institutions are experimenting with voice AI assistants is for compliance, Sicular said. Employees ask their assistants “Can I do something or not? Is this against corporate policy?” That’s the sort of a narrow use case for voice AI technology that IT leaders should be thinking about, she said.

AI voice assistant security conundrums

Unfortunately, since AI voice technology was designed initially for personal use, not for corporations, digital workplace assistants open up a flood of security questions, Sicular said. What if the text is read aloud and it’s sensitive information? How do you secure that information? Since there will be multiple users at meetings with different levels of security clearance, how does the device authenticate those users by their voices?

Questions about where data associated with voice AI technology should be stored and who owns it add another wrinkle to the security strategy for AI voice assistants. IT executives will have to deal with questions of encryption and access, Sicular said, noting that voice AI providers like Google do provide some security and encryption for company data in their enterprise editions.

Culture shock

AI voice assistants in the workplace will also require a culture change, Sicular said, which is why she said organizations need to provide an environment for employees to adapt to a voice-saturated workplace and to learn continuously. This will be especially important when the AI voice assistants take on daily tasks and routines.

Sicular said there are many choices for organizations looking to bring voice AI into their workplaces, but said that “Cortana owns the corporate desktop and Windows.” Microsoft has been slowly adding more email intelligence to Cortana and the AI assistant will soon be on Office 365 apps, reading aloud emails and performing other tasks.

Microsoft Teams, the company’s workplace collaboration tool and Slack competitor, will also be integrated with Cortana, allowing employees to easily make a call, join a meeting or add people to meetings using natural, spoken language. Employees using Teams will also be able to record meetings, create an automatic transcription of what was said during the meetings and save the meetings to the cloud.

For CIOs, this part of the Sicular’s message at least is crystal clear: Voice AI is the future, and it’s coming to your workplaces sooner than you think.

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