Amazon Alexa’s founder on how voice tech will impact retail

William Tunstall-Pedoe

“The vision is that everything will respond when you talk to it; you’ll be surprised when it doesn’t reply,” said William Tunstall-Pedoe, the creator of Amazon Alexa, at a recent event hosted by FashMash in London.

The UK-based inventor and entrepreneur, whose startup Evi was acquired by Amazon in 2012, was talking about the expectation he has for voice technology, or what’s being increasingly referred to as the “zero interface”, down the line.

Right now, the technology is incredibly nascent, but its application in the future is only going to increase, he argued: “AI and voice tech have the potential to overtake humans, but I couldn’t predict when. An effective virtual sales assistant, for example, would be transformative, but the detail is lacking right now.”

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Tunstall-Pedoe, who recorded a podcast for TheCurrent Innovators that has just been re-released from earlier this year, particularly sees this as the case when talking about retail. Today, he suggests voice technology is only applicable to shopping at a very basic level – for groceries, for instance, or for replenishment of households goods like detergent or toilet roll.

In fact, only about 100,000 people have reportedly bought something via voice interface more than once thus far, according to a report from The Information. But, voice commerce sales did reach $1.8 billion in 2017, and they’re predicted to hit $40 billion by 2022, a study from OC&C Strategy Consultants shows.

A more intelligent system is needed to make that a reality, Tunstall-Pedoe suggests. “What we really want is a kind of superhuman sales assistant that you can have a conversation with – an AI that would be showing you product, answering questions and taking into account your circumstances to sell you something. It has the potential of basically what a really good sales person would do.”

“It shouldn’t be that surprising that people are not doing that much shopping of new products just with voice assistants right now, they want to see it and touch it. We are very very early right now; we are only nibbling at the edges of buying things… Once you can create a sales assistant at scale, then that would be transformative. But for very personalized experiences, that is not possible just yet.”

What he does suggest for today, is that retailers and brands remain focused on making the best products possible, and learning to describe and categorize them as tightly as they can. With consumers demanding more personal and relevant interactions, it’s only going to become more necessary to feed the machines (as such) with the right information in the first place, he comments.

After all, the superhuman assistants of the future may well be about surfacing the best product for their humans in question, but that’s only the case if they know about them in the first place.

Having departed Amazon in 2016, and since been working with a multitude of startups around the globe, many of them focused on all different areas under the artificial intelligence header, Tunstall-Pedoe is bullish on this direction of travel. “There is a lot of technology in the future, that hasn’t been invented yet, that is going to make this better. It’s a very exciting time and it’s only just beginning.”

 

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