Smart condo conundrum: Talk to appliances, or text them?

Published On: April 6, 2017 04:00 AM NPT By: Reuters

In today’s so-called smart home, you can dim the lights, order more toothpaste or tell the kids to go to bed simply by talking to a small Wifi-connected speaker, such as Amazon’s Echo or Google’s Home.
This voice-first market  combining voice with artificial intelligence (AI) - barely existed in 2014. This year, Voice Labs, a consultancy, expects 24.5 million appliances to be shipped.
Other big tech firms have their own plans: Apple is taking its Siri voice assistant beyond its mobile devices to PCs, cars, and the home; Baidu last month bought Raven, billed as China’s answer to Amazon’s Alexa intelligent personal assistant; and Samsung Electronics plans to incorporate Viv, its newly acquired virtual assistant, into its phones and home appliances.
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, for example, was working on Jarvis, his own voice-powered AI home automation, and found he preferred communicating by text because, he wrote, “mostly it feels less disturbing to people around me.”
With your home added to the contacts list on, say, WhatsApp, a quick text message can “start the coffee machine”; “turn on the vacuum cleaner at 5 p.m.”; or “preheat the oven to 200 degrees at 6.30 p.m.”
“Think of it as a universal translator between the languages that machines speak and us humans,” said Toby Ruckert, a German former concert pianist and now Unified Inbox’s CEO.
The company is just a small player, funded by private investors, but Ruckert says its technology is patent-backed, has been several years in the making, and has customers that include half of the world’s smart appliance makers, such as Bosch .
Unified Inbox connects the devices on behalf of the manufacturer, while the consumer can add their appliance by messaging its serial number to a special user account or phone number. 
“People aren’t going to want a different interface for all the different appliances in their home,” says Jason Jameson, of IBM, which is pairing its Watson AI supercomputer with Unified Inbox to better understand user messages. “The common denominator is the smartphone, and even more common is the messaging app,” Jameson notes.


There’s another reason, Ruckert says, why more than half of the world’s smart appliance manufacturers have signed up. They’re worried the big tech companies’ one-appliance-controls-all approach will relegate them to commodity players, connecting to Alexa or another dominant platform, or being cast aside if Amazon moves into making its own household appliances.
“Our customers are quite afraid of the likes of Amazon,” Ruckert said. “Having a Trojan horse in a customer’s home, like Echo, that they must integrate with to stay competitive is a nightmare for them.” Already the race is on to incorporate other services into these home hubs.
As Zuckerberg noted, the volume of text messages is growing much faster than the number of voice calls. “This suggests that future AI products cannot be solely focused on voice, and will need a private messaging interface as well,” he says.

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