Why Voice Technology is Future-Proofing Industries

by Heather Kay-Software Engineer

Google home smart speaker

Ten years ago, the idea that you could talk to a machine to turn on a light, change the TV channel, or play some music in your home was reserved for sci-fi movies. Yet in 2020, an estimated one in five UK households now use voice technology in the form of smart speakers, and it’s predicted that there will be more smart assistant devices in homes than the world’s population by 2024.

Since the launch of the first in-home digital voice assistant in 2014, the power of the technology has grown at an exponential rate, allowing more people than ever to control their devices with just their voice. 

We’ve seen a never-ending march of innovation from the likes of Google Home, Amazon Alexa, Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana. But the applications of voice technology lie far beyond the home user asking their device to tell them the daily weather forecast. 

These technologies are becoming essential in many sectors previously reliant on manual human involvement, such as healthcare, finance, education and even travel. 

The popularity of voice technology shows no signs of slowing down. We’re now looking at ways that voice technology can help to shape the future of business.

How does voice technology work?

Before we dive into the applications of voice technology, let’s look at how it works. First, we need to understand a little bit about the basics of language. 

Language is made up of phonemes – small units of sound that distinguish one word from another. The English language is made up of 44 unique phonemes. Voice technology uses the distinction in these phonemes to understand a voice command and act on it. 

Voice technology must be calibrated to the individual user as well. This works by recording a sample of the user’s speech and converting it into a unique digitised format called a “voiceprint”. 

A voiceprint captures the user’s sounds and features that make their voice unique, such as the shape of their nose and mouth. This creates a voiceprint that’s unique to each individual, much like a fingerprint. Once the voice technology has your voiceprint, you can start speaking commands.

The command you give is turned into a string of numbers in the form of a digital wave and broken up into the phonemes of the word that’s spoken. These are then compared to the phonetic dictionary and matched to identify what’s been said. 

To increase accuracy, language models are used to identify the word that’s being spoken, based on phonemes that are commonly spoken together – for example, a ‘th’ sound is usually followed by a vowel sound.

How is the technology future-proofing industries?

As the technology has become more prevalent, customers have grown to expect virtual customer service. Voice is revolutionising the customer service experience, offering new opportunities such as:

    Fast action for customer queries

    A personalised customer experience

    Increased efficiency

Voice technology provides businesses with a significant opportunity to acquire and retain customers. It can empower customers to self-serve, while still offering a bespoke, high-quality and personalised experience.

Voice in healthcare

Voice is making a huge impact in healthcare – especially given the current global pandemic, where social distance is encouraged and healthcare resources are being stretched to capacity. 

This technology is easing workflows for caretakers and empowering patients. If a patient is immobile, voice technology allows them to interact with their surroundings, such as adjusting the temperature of the room if it’s uncomfortable. Voice tech can also be used to remind patients to take their medication at the correct time without intervention from a nurse. 

Voice is also being used in the diagnosis and treatment of patients both in and out of hospitals, with offerings such as:

    The Mayo Clinic First Aid skill that can suggest care tips and basic first aid for non-emergency situations

    Northwell Health’s skill that helps users identify the wait times at emergency rooms and urgent care centres in a given area

    Dictation of patient notes to reduce the time spent by health clinicians on data entry. Studies suggest the average clinician spends two hours on data entry for every one hour they spend providing actual care 

    The Omron Healthcare blood pressure monitor that can be controlled through voice technology

Alongside these technologies that already exist, there’s huge potential for more innovation. Work has already started to allow voice technology to recognise if a person is ill, by analysing their voice and then prescribing an appropriate treatment.

Of course, these advances come with challenges – the most prominent being Health Insurance Portability and Accountability (HIPAA) compliance, which prevents a patient’s personal health information from being accessed by unauthorised individuals. In April 2019, Amazon announced new HIPAA-compliant features for the Alexa digital assistant, but there’s still more work to be done to ensure patient information is kept safe.

Voice in banking

One of the main drivers for the use of voice in banking is the improvement of customer service. Users have frequent frustrations where outdated technology sends them to the wrong place or causes long wait times, so that they spend more time on hold than actually speaking with someone who can resolve their issue. 

Voice has great potential in the banking space, including hands-free transactions, voice payments and locking/unlocking payment cards for users. However, the main barrier preventing its widespread adoption is security. Financial institutions are more risk-averse, meaning voice technology needs to be fully secure to be implemented.

The popularity of voice in banking is on the rise though, with the Business Insider predicting the use of voice payments in the US to grow from 8% of total transactions to 31% by 2022. Many banking institutions are already starting to implement voice such as:

    Westpac Banking Corporation in Australia, who have launched an Alexa Skill called Westpac Live. Not only does it allow users to check their balance and search transactions, but users can also listen to financial news that the bank puts out on their website

    Garanti Bank in Turkey, who launched voice transactions through its Mobile Interactive Assistant

    In August 2019, NatWest trialled a voice-driven service that allowed customers to check bank balances and transactions 

Voice has also been introduced as a way of securing your account by some banks such as HSBC. However, security concerns remain. In 2017, a BBC reporter was able to access the account of his twin by mimicking his voice. More work needs to be done before voice technology is considered a robust authentication method in the banking space.

Voice in retail

As with banking, the retail customer experience can also be improved via voice technology. While voice in retail has had some bad press in the past – with stories of television commercials ordering cat food without the owner’s knowledge, or children purchasing toys without their parent’s permission – more brands are adopting voice as part of their offering. 

Voice technology can offer unique experiences in the retail sector that encourage consumers to try new products they hadn’t considered before. Some of these experiences include:

    McDonald’s looking to adopt voice technology in their drive-throughs, so that people can order complex menu items without the need for a member of staff at the end of the speaker 

    Kiosks, such as train ticket machines, vending machines and other self-service systems, switching to voice technology for a touch-free experience, with MasterCard recently agreeing to develop voice technology for quick-service restaurants 

    A talking shelf launched to act as an in-store shopping assistant. The Smart Aisle was implemented as a whisky selector, to enable customers to receive personalised recommendations without having to engage with a shop assistant

Voice in education

Voice technology has huge potential in the education sector, as students look for new ways to engage in educational content and foster their learning. 

In primary and secondary schools, voice technology allows students to have one-on-one interactions without the need for one-on-one teaching. Activities such as times tables, spelling and even reading can use voice technology. It also makes education more accessible to children who may have learning difficulties, offering a new way to interact with their classmates and teachers.

Teachers can use voice technology for classroom management, such as setting timers for classroom activities, answering student’s basic queries and giving instructions.

In higher education, voice technology is being used by students to re-listen to audio lectures to aid in their revision, get directions to rooms and offices on campus, and even complete oral exams without the need for face-to-face interaction.

Schools all over the UK have implemented voice technology including, from Lancaster University who introduced ‘L.U.’ to help students in study and university life, to Bolton College, who used the Ada chatbot with voice technology to let tutors spend less time on paperwork and more time on teaching.

Voice technology, marketing and natural language processing

The success of voice technology is largely due to the implementation of natural language processing, artificial intelligence and machine learning to ensure accuracy. As a result, voice search is becoming a leading marketing channel for businesses both large and small. 

And consumers are responding to these new offerings. 

Research indicates that up to 43% of voice technology owners use their device to shop, with 51% stating they use voice technology to research products. It’s clear from these figures that voice assistants offer a unique marketing tool to encourage consumers to purchase new products.

Voice technology for the travel industry

Gone are the days where travel was booked exclusively through a travel agent. 

Now, voice technology is becoming your travel agent, able to search for deals, provide information about a hotel or destination, and even book flights and hotels all with just your voice. 

As with many of the other industries we’ve spoken about in this article, the travel industry’s customer service offering can see huge benefits from voice – and it’s already been adopted by some:

    Expedia launched a voice service that allows people to search for hotels and flights, add extras to their booking such as rental cars, and check their flight status

    KLM offers voice services in the Netherlands, allowing customers to search for flights, plan their departure, find guides for their travel and even receive personalised advice about packing their bags for their upcoming trip

    United Airlines lets customers use voice technology to check-in for their flight

How does Apadmi utilise voice technology for mobile?

At Apadmi we’ve embraced the rise of voice technology by working with industry leaders to create new solutions and functionality. We even went as far as getting our team certified as Voice User Experience (VUX) designers, to ensure the solutions we create are strong enough to withstand the test of time. 

Our work in voice technology includes a series of voice apps for The Drum including The Drum Voice and The Drum Flash Briefing as well as our own voice app, Who’s Next, which is a 5-star skill on the Alexa Skill Store. 

If you’re interested in voice technology and want to know what Apadmi can do for your business, contact us here.

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