A doctor at the Boston Children’s Hospital demonstrates Amazon’s Alexa voice recognition technology for medical purposes in an operating room. According to a Cisco survey conducted last year, 69 per cent of Canadian respondents who have personal assistants in the workplace say they would be more productive if they had a virtual assistant. (John Blanding/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Innovation | Technology

Voice assistants like Alexa make their way into the workplace

Businesses can use these vocal devices to help employees schedule meetings, keep track of to-do lists and set important reminders

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Voice-enabled assistants have become a popular accessory for homeowners, but do they have a place in the business world? According to Sanjay Malhotra, the co-founder and CTO of Clearbridge Mobile, there are many opportunities for businesses to adopt services like Amazon Alexa for Business and Google Assistant, particularly startups. “It's evident that assistants and the future of conversational AI [artificial intelligence] are quickly moving from the home to the workplace.”

Businesses can use voice assistants to help employees work more efficiently—from scheduling meetings and keeping track of to-do lists, to setting important reminders, he adds. “Alexa for Business, for example, also allows employees to find information on different business apps like Salesforce,” he says. As a busy executive, Malhotra says he often uses voice assistants to listen to the latest technology news, schedule meetings and keep pace with new product releases.

He is not alone. A 2017 Cisco survey regarding attitudes towards AI in the workspace and collaboration tools revealed that 69 per cent of Canadians with personal assistants say they would be more productive if they had a virtual assistant. Also, 56 per cent of Canadian workers believe speaking to virtual assistants will eventually replace typing.

Voice assistants are even being introduced at the enterprise level. Cisco Spark™ Assistant was introduced to its collaborative platform last year as a means to manage meetings and connect with workers using simple voice activation, says Robert Barton, principal systems engineer for Cisco Canada in Vancouver.

This type of interaction takes you past going through multiple mouse clicks to manage a meeting, he says. “If you want to record the meeting, you can also do that. And it can all be done using simple, natural language.”

While Barton says voice activation technologies are still in their early days of development, over time they will be able to train systems to respond to specific voices and accents, or to accept commands based on proximity.

However, as voice assistants evolve, there are security concerns that need to be addressed. According to the Cisco survey, 42 per cent of respondents said they would not use virtual assistants such as Google Assistant or Alexa at work because of privacy concerns.

As Malhotra notes, “Before enterprise voice assistants can see widespread adoption, they must overcome these security concerns. Smart speakers are designed to be hubs that can control other IoT appliances in your home. However, this convenience comes at a cost and new vulnerabilities. The same goes for businesses.”

Amazon specifically has taken many security measures such as disallowing third-party application installation on the device, robust security reviews, secure software development requirements, and encryption of communication between Echo, the Alexa App and Amazon servers, he reports. “Google on the other hand, has noted that users can protect their accounts with a Security Checkup, and can visit My Activity to erase their past searches, browsing history, etc. from their account.”

Despite the reservations, Malhotra firmly believes voice-enabled AI assistants will gain in popularity for business use. “Voice will play a huge role in how we collaborate over the next decade,” he says.