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Ubiquitous Virtual Assistants and AI Homogenization at CES 2018

CES exhibitors promoted everything from AI-powered vehicles to smart refrigerators and robot puppies. But the tech driving these diverse products was the same: the virtual assistant, a conversational AI that can understand human speech and generate humanlike responses.

Although AI is opening up a world of possibilities for humanity, the technology’s current application in consumer electronics remains surprisingly limited.

At last week’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas (CES 2018), exhibitors promoted everything from AI-powered vehicles to smart refrigerators and robot puppies. But the tech driving these diverse products was the same: the virtual assistant, a conversational AI that can understand human speech and generate humanlike responses.

Since Amazon introduced its virtual assistant Alexa and attendant smart speaker Echo three years ago, virtual assistants have been widely integrated into home appliances, smart devices and cars. At CES 2018, South Korean electronics mogul LG announced a partnership with Google to enable customers to communicate with its televisions via Google Assistant, the Alexa rival released in 2016. At the LG booth, a staff member proudly prompted a television to say “hola” (“hello” in Spanish) via Google Assistant.

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LG TV with Google Assistant built in

Other electronics makers such as TCL, Hisense, Haier and Sony also support Google Assistant in their smart home product lines. When asked about the biggest advantage of AI for home appliances, a CES Hisense representative told Synced “with virtual assistants, AI brings a better connectivity between devices and electronics.”

Virtual assistants are also bringing their convenient voice interface to cars. Millions of vehicles from top manufacturers like FordGMVolkswagen and Volvo now have Google Assistant built in.

CES 2018 visitors were greeted by a huge “Hey Google” installation at the show’s main entrance, and a city-wide advertising campaign covered Las Vegas with the wake word slogan. The virtual assistant has become the focus of so much contemporary applied AI in part because it is one of the few AI technologies that has proven both successful and marketable over the last few years. Amazon’s Echo sales more than quintupled from 2016 to 2017, while Google Assistant now supports 1,500 devices from 200 brands.

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While virtual assistants are being deployed across such a wide range of products, most companies are using the same third-party cloud service to power their voice interfaces, so users will converse with the same bot whether they are switching TV channels, navigating a route in their car, or ordering a pizza.

Many Chinese tech companies — including Alibaba and Baidu Online — brought their smart speakers to CES 2018 for the first time. However, Microsoft Product Manager Tucker Kelly told Synced that he could not discern any significant differences between Alibaba’s smart speaker Ali Genie X1 and other Chinese smart speakers. “They all look the same and have similar features.”

Kun Jing, General Manager of Baidu’s DuerOS platform, told Synced that the virtual assistant marketplace is still new, and he believes more diversified and customised AI products will emerge in 2018. “Android as a mobile operating system has pushed innovations to the boundaries, but we don’t have any mainstream operating systems for the era of AI yet,” says Jing. This is an area where Baidu is currently applying its development resources.

Meanwhile, only a few companies have taken the step of customising their virtual assistants with unique appearances or interlocution styles. Chinese electronics maker Xiaomi, for example, designed an anime avatar Xiao Ai, an adorable redheaded girl with a sweet, natural voice, for its Mi AI Speaker. Considering anime culture is widely popular with Chinese consumers, the character is expected to further drive domestic sales.

iFlytek has also put effort into innovation, showcasing a range of AI-powered voice translators, portable intelligence translators, smart microphones, smart speakers, and AI headphones. An iFlytek representative told Synced its English-Mandarin Voice Translator EASYTRANS 600 was very well-received by CES attendees.

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Baidu DuerOS Booth

With virtual assistants getting all the attention these days, other AI technologies are lagging. Facial recognition for example has not been as widely adopted because it remains vulnerable to attacks. Last year, when Apple boldly switched its iPhone X unlocking system from fingerprint-based TouchID to facial recognition-based Face ID, the tech was quickly tricked by siblings and even a cheap mask. Many other promising AI technologies remain relatively underdeveloped because they have limited applications in consumer products.

AI has wowed humans over the last two years with its capacity for detecting images, translating languages, recognizing voices, and mastering board games such as Go. Going forward, humans will be expecting more from their virtual assistants, and expecting more than virtual assistants from AI.


Journalist: Tony Peng | Editor: Michael Sarazen

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