CES 2018 for CIOs: Rise of the AI voice assistant class

What happens in Vegas doesn't stay there -- not at CES 2018, where AI voice assistants and sentient objects were ubiquitous and the crossover to workforces was obvious.

CES 2018 happened. Four miles on the Vegas Strip, the latest gadgetry, some 4,000 vendors, 170,000 attendees, 7,000 media, three days of sessions, not including the pre-show briefings, backroom meetings and off-site soirees where the secret stuff goes down -- what, if anything, does the world's biggest consumer tech show mean to CIOs?

Should a CIO, for goodness' sake, care that the Numi intelligent toilet by Kohler Co. -- a CES 2018 Innovation Awards Honoree -- has a voice-controlled toilet lid lifter and seat warmer, among other more intimate services? Or that the Kohler Konnect Verdera Voice Lighted Mirror is the world's first bathroom mirror with Amazon's AI voice assistant, Alexa?

Isaac Sacolick, who's been a CIO at Businessweek and McGraw-Hill Construction and is now president and CIO at New York-based consulting firm StarCIO, believes so. "The Kohler Konnect mirror was probably one of the more interesting voice assistants I looked at," said Sacolick, who, like SearchCIO, monitored the event remotely. The message: AI voice assistants have gone mainstream.

Sacolick, author of Driving Digital: The Leader's Guide to Business Transformation Through Technology, remembered when the smartphones debuted at CES were dismissed by peers as having little impact on IT strategies. "But, sure enough, people started bringing in smartphones, and you needed to worry about BYOD and putting in MDM [mobile device management] managers and thinking about policy."

He sees the dominance of voice interfaces at CES 2018 as signaling another gearshift for CIOs, akin to the migration of data centers to the cloud and the move from web-only to mobile apps. "Now, CIOs are going to have go from mobile user experiences to voice UX and make sure the applications they build out have a voice capability."

Where it makes sense, said Nigel Fenwick, Forrester Research principal analyst who focuses on CIO issues. "We're not going to put a voice interface on everything, because there is cost and complexity associated with that, and the return is not necessarily going to be there," he said. So CIOs "will want to be cautious" and use conversational interfaces where they have a "maximum impact." Don't tell that to the vendors: Amazon has a plan to put an Echo in every boardroom.

But Fenwick agreed the migration of AI voice assistants from the consumer market to the workplace is inevitable. CIOs will start seeing demand from Millennials. And the technology will evolve from voice interfaces retrofitted on select enterprise applications to AI voice assistants working side by side with employees. "Teenagers growing up are going to be used to having that conversation with a device -- and expecting an intelligent response," he said.

Marriage of IoT and AI

Moreover, voice assistants -- of the smart and not-so-smart variety -- are just one component of an increasingly complex technology landscape CIOs now have to manage, Fenwick said, as companies like the ones presenting at CES this year outfit the world with a digital skin.

"The big thing for CIOs will be handling all the sensors that are going to be enabled through IoT platforms," he said, adding that the ability to process and gain insight from internet-of-things data will "separate the winners from the losers" in the next few years. Voice assistant technology that allows users to communicate with IoT devices ups the ante.

"The role of the CIO at once becomes more complicated because of the need to integrate new technology with back-end systems of record," as well as "understand what's happening with the customer in order to create unique value for the customer," Fenwick said.

The marriage of an AI interface and IoT at CES 2018 also struck Sacolick as a game-changer. Many of the CIOs he deals with in his consulting business see IoT devices as vehicles for collecting data, allowing companies "to be smarter about what's happening out in the field."

"But as soon as you start thinking about these devices as two-way -- instead of just data-collection devices, they are presentation devices or intelligence devices, making decisions for people" -- then questions about reliability, performance and analytics arise. How much computing, for example, takes place centrally in the cloud and how much locally? 

"I do think, for enterprises, it's still early," he said, but noted that when you see AI chipmakers Intel and Nvidia battling it out at CES for supremacy in the autonomous vehicle space, it's time to pay attention. 

‘How, not whether'

Analyst Mike Ramsey, who covers connected vehicles for research outfit Gartner, said what struck him from this year's huge focus on autonomous cars was a shift in emphasis. "The focus was on how this was going to work -- How will we make money? How will the tech be deployed? -- not whether the tech will work," Ramsey said, waiting to board a flight home from the show.

A point of debate in the industry is the integration of virtual assistants, which Ramsey said come in two varieties: the AI voice assistant that can communicate your wishes to the world -- order a pizza -- and the more "deeply integrated" intelligence embedded in the controls of the car. Google, Amazon and Apple continue to make inroads on this front, but Ramsey said the industry's embrace of the big tech companies is not universal or without reservations.

"Mercedes announced its own system that has a lot of capability, not just basic things like asking it to change your radio station or call mom, but weird questions, like 'Can I wear flip-flops tomorrow?'" he said. The ongoing "tussle between the tech giants and the automakers," he said, is less about who owns the data and more about brand.

"The issue for them is who owns the experience in the car? They don't want you to get in and feel like what you love about your car is Alexa," Ramsey said.

Forrester's Fenwick had something to say about that.

"You see at CES a sort of shift that has happened over the last few years -- and continued to accelerate this year -- towards the individualization of product or consumer experience. And that reflects the ability of companies to greatly tailor the experience of the product or service to their customers' needs and desires," he said. It's a challenge for brands -- and for CIOs.

"How do you build a technology architecture that is flexible and adaptable, that can integrate as yet undeveloped technologies into the architecture quickly in order to create revenue?" he said.

Watch for more reports this week on the CES 2018 consumer trends CIOs need to pay attention to.

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