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Virtual Assistants are the new interfaces for interacting with organisations and the services that they offer

There are two types of language spoken by a British person when abroad, they speak English, or they speak English loudly. As a population, it is fair to say that being multi-lingual is not part of the national identity. However, this shortfall may no longer be quite the national embarrassment it has been, as with the rise of next-generation Virtual Assistants, backed by Natural Language Processing (NLP) and Artificial Intelligence (AI), real-time translation of language is becoming a reality and will be finding a home within the IT landscape of almost all organisations.

Virtual Assistants, who too many take the form of the home-based Alexa (Amazon), Siri (Apple), or Google Assistant (Google), have been on the rise for the last few years. Such is their popularity that on Christmas Day in 2018the high volume of new Amazon Echo devices, (the hardware that enables the interaction with Alexa), added at the same time to the Amazon infrastructure caused it to briefly crash.

This incident perfectly illustrates individuals desire to now communicate with businesses and services, via voice. A report from eMarketerpredicts that in the UK smart speaker users, the vehicle that most use to interact with the current crop of virtual assistants will rise to 12.6 million users within the UK (or 22.4% of regular internet users). Businesses must now start the process of enabling their services to be interacted with in this new way.

“Voice is the new user interface”, states Ian Sherratt, Chief Innovation Officer, SCC, “It is the natural successor to the three major ways we have interacted with technology in the past few decades. We started with keyboards and typed commands, moving to graphical user interfaces and the heavy use of a mouse, then just over a decade ago touch and multi-touch entered the market. Now voice is poised to be the dominant way that individuals interact in the coming decade”


Breaking Down the Barriers

Even in this technologically mature age, there is still a barrier to accessing information and services for many. This can be due to lacking digital skills – an area that The Telegraphreported on in September 2018 where they stated that up to 12% of the population could lack such skills in the next decade. This statistic was taken from a report by the Good Things Foundation4, a social change charity that supports socially excluded people to improve their lives through digital technology and skills, and stated that those individuals who had not grown up with digital technology were becoming increasingly isolated as they did not possess the necessary skills to interact and transact with digital government services.

In addition, language can also be a barrier. For individuals for whom English is not their main language, which the UK governments own statisticsput at around 13% of the UK population or around 864,000 individuals.

For both of these demographics being able to purely speak to a device, in their own language, opens up access to the digital services that they have been inhibited from using. For them, it requires low levels of technical training and the barriers to entry to this technology are low – Smart Speakers are now less than £50 and are often on offer for less than half of that.

However this does come with a potential downside for the business community, because as soon as the industry leaders in their field start to offer voice-enabled services, the BBC,6 for example, has since 2017 been providing access to their full range of live radio stations – including all local, national and international radio – through a voice-enabled interface, then others will be expected to follow. In the same way, that when previous user interfaces came into play, to remain competitive, organisations quickly followed by providing websites or an app.


Further Use Cases

Virtual Assistants will find themselves being put to work for organisations both internally and externally across the full range of industries with Public Sector bodies having the potential to improve on the services they provide to citizens. Those who are not digitally literate could ask simple questions about the services provided and get an answer, as opposed to having to navigate increasingly complex websites or telephone information lines with their frustrating menu structures.

And with Virtual Assistants having the ability, through NLP, for real-time language translation, organisations such as the Police Service have the potential to take statements in any language at the scene of an incident and have it translated in real time. Often an investigation can be inhibited by a language barrier where witnesses or suspects cannot speak fluent English.


Getting Voice Enabled

Organisations across commercial and public sectors would be well advised to start looking at how this next generation of technology can be put into use. To enable this journey, the next phase in digital transformation, they will need to engage with partners with the necessary experience and understanding of a range of disciplines – from data repositories, business process engineering, AI, technical architecture, scalability and more, all of which reside within SCC.

“The benefit of this technology cannot be overstated,” comments Ian Sherratt, “It is being driven from the home user into the enterprise, meaning there is an expectation for it to be delivered. However it is a win-win as when voice-enabled technology is backed by AI, it genuinely can drive down costs and provide better, faster and more accurate service levels. The organisations that understand that will swiftly become the leaders within their market sector.”


External Links

1TechCrunch :Alexa Crashed On Christmas Day


2 eMarketer report :Global Smart Speaker Users 2019


3The Telegraph :Lack of digital skills will cause 7 million to be ‘left behind’ in next decade


4The Good Things Foundation :The economic impact of Digital Inclusion in the UK


5Gov.uk :English language skills


6 BBC :BBC launches its first full voice service for smart speakers