Kirk Klasson

AI: Still Crossing the Chasm

OK, file this one under future inevitabilities.

Back in 2018, in a post entitled “AI: Crossing the Chasm One Clock Radio at a Time”, we speculated that, without some serious beer goggles, the land rush into smart speakers looked a bit dubious.

The first clue was the estimated market size for voice initiated consumer transactions, $40b by 2022. That’s a late night bender with only the Home Shopping Network on cable.

Next was the Swiss Army feature array of your average smart speaker. It could julienne your veggies, walk your dog, control your thermostat, manage your media center and secure your door bell all from one easy to use, AI enabled, network connected device. The only caveat being that all of those features relied on a standard integration platform that had yet to be invented.

But wait, there’s more. By opening up your home to microphones and cameras, these devices could learn your wants and desires and present options that you hadn’t previously considered. For instance, upon detecting late night queefing, suggestions for CBD infused lube, pelvic floor pilates and voice adjustable mattresses might appear the following morning.

All in all, your quality of life was about to become immeasurably improved.

So, was anyone surprised to learn that in the last couple of weeks Amazon has joined the list of other tech companies in laying off swaths of tech talent? Nope, not even for an instant. (see “Tech in the Land That Rates Forgot” – October 2022) Back in 2018 when the original post appeared it was plain that Amazon was pouring and losing a ton of money on their smart speakers, an estimate by the New York Times pegged the amount at somewhere around $5B in 2018 alone. Recently, estimates have the loss now approaching $10B a year. An amount that apparently got someone’s attention.

Amazon’s bet on Alexa was notably different from the “intelligent assistant” bets that Apple and Google had already made (see “The Dawn of Agency” – May 2018). While all of them hoped to harvest and monetize customer data, Amazon’s was uniquely focused on device specific, home occupancy and made no secret that the more you were willing to engage and share the better the value proposition would be for both the user and for Amazon. But that never materialized.

Despite an innumerable amount of tech enabled gadgets, gizmos and games, aka skills, Alexa hasn’t been able to penetrate the needs of its average user much beyond what we conjectured back in 2018 would be its “peak of the power curve” application, a simple, voice controlled clock radio.

So, the obvious question is why? But before we go there, let’s go here.

When Alexa was first introduced, in the fall of 2014, it might have just as easily been configured and introduced as a corporate productivity tool, listening to the questions and riffing on the ideas of a focused business community. But it wasn’t. And with good reason, it would have failed. No serious minded business person would want to have all of their conversations poured into an AI powered eavesdropper. Every time this gets broached, it gets dropped.

Relationships are based on trust. How do I know? Because I’m telling you this in the same manner in which I learned it, the strictest of confidences. And it appears that no one has any confidence that Alexa will operate in any manner that would benefit the consumer.

Case in point, lately Alexa has been asking me to try one of its skills, a post-it note or label maker, that says “Hi, I am Hank, Kirk’s dog.” I never “told” Alexa I had a dog. Further, I never told Alexa that my dog’s name was Hank. It figured that out all by itself. Pretty clever if you ask me. Took a lot of listening and a lot of Machine Learning to connect those dots.

But here’s the thing. Knowing this is not going to get me to order anything using Alexa.

And, by the way, neither will Hank.


Cover graphic courtesy of all other images, statistics, illustrations and citations, etc. derived and included under fair use/royalty free provisions.

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