"Hey Alexa, what just happened here?"
Updated: Feb 22
Two Super Bowl commercials caused quite a stir last week. “Before Alexa” from Amazon features celebrity presenters Ellen and Portia within a humorous look back in time while Google’s “Loretta” conveys the compelling, emotionally rich story of a widower remembering the love of his life. Both were widely, even wildly, well-received.
As of this writing, “Before Alexa” leads “Loretta” in YouTube views 61MM to 44MM, which taken together exceeds the entire Nielsen reported audience of 102MM for the broadcast of Super Bowl LIV itself. Not a bad night's work.
However, what really piqued my interest weren't the individual merits of the spots themselves. They're both brilliant; no matter the cloying use of celebrity influencers (a Super Bowl staple of epic proportions) or debating humor versus nostalgia in assessing these spots phenomenal success.
No, what struck me most was that these commercials almost effortlessly presented - and net somewhere between 100 to 200MM of us have just witnessed - the moment when AI powered voice computing went mainstream. Complete with a slew of short and long-term consequences, the vast majority of which, few of us can fathom.
And all this occurred with little or no conversation, much less concern, with the exception of a few ad critiques, notably Joelle Renstrom's "The Sinister Realities of Google's Tear-Jerking Super Bowl Commercial".
Most of us (particularly those in marketing) are guilty of calling way too many things revolutionary. Everything new by definition promises profound impact on our homely habits and practices. It's a pretty old saw.
Real revolutions are different; they alter individual and then group behavior in a way that somehow sticks, takes root, and spreads as it changes the face of the culture. Somehow that’s how authentic this already feels.
Voice Assistants/Artificial Intelligence
None of this is really new. Among the leaders, Apple introduced Siri, the first broad-based voice assistant in 2011. Amazon followed with Alexa in 2014 and the Google Assistant came to market in 2016.
As James Vlahos explains in his remarkable book, Talk to Me: How Voice Computing Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Think (emphasis added):
“Today we use Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, and Google Assistant mostly for simple tasks, such as setting timers, cueing a playlist to start, and checking the weather. But the world’s most powerful technology companies are aiming for something far more sophisticated and transformative.”
“The holy grail,” says Ashwin Ram, who led the artificial intelligence (AI) research team for Alexa and now works at Google, “is being able to interact with machines the way we do with each other, which is through voice.”
"Innovators like Ram envision today’s computers—perched on desktops or tucked into pockets—fading in importance as chatty AIs become the primary gateways to all that can be done digitally. These personified beings can already help us shop and make us dinner reservations—though clumsily, at times.
"But conversational AI experts are betting that as the technology advances, the convenience of voice computing will make the technology irresistible, not just for buying laundry detergent but also for performing highly personal activities such as receiving emotional counseling and memorializing a loved one. However, as machines take over tasks that formerly belonged exclusively to people, there will be trade-offs, too."
Becomes A Piece of Cake
My interest isn't in explaining artificial intelligence and where it's headed but rather acknowledging it's already active in our daily lives and it’s here to stay. Voice-activated devices are in our hands, our homes, our offices, and our cars.
The emancipating power of these tools is unlike anything ever seen before and has the potential to forever change how we live our lives.. And if you still think of these devices as non-essential novelties just consider:
94% of all smart speakers in use are from Google and Amazon
72% of people who own voice-activated speakers say that their devices are used as part of their daily routines
30% of web browsing will be screen less by 2020
50% of all online searches will be voice searches by 2020
55% of households are expected to own smart speakers by 2022…
As we stroll toward our rendezvous with ubiquitous, AI-powered voice assistants, even with all the obvious benefits, some will assail Alexa and her sisters as the point of no return; the tip of the machine-age iceberg; the Trojan Horse that was filled with (gasp!) robots.
Without weighing in on the current or emerging pros and cons, I see it somewhat differently.
We just passed a tipping point that should be noted. And we're well on our way to who knows where with enormous implications. But like the easy to use and convenient services they promote, I think in hindsight Amazon's "Before Alexa" and Google's "Loretta" will be seen as “the spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine go down”.
Even as precisely how "delightful", and just for whom and how many, remains largely to be seen.