International Business Machines, popularly known as IBM, is hoping to create a new voice assistant for the business world in a direct competition to Amazon’s Alexa. On Tuesday, at its Think conference in Las Vegas, IBM took the wraps off of “Watson” Assistant, a virtual helper it’s been developing with its customers for over a year.
Watson doesn’t function the same way Alexa does, or in the way Apple’s Siri or Microsoft’s Cortana respond. Amazon, which has been aggressively pushing its Alexa assistant into thousands of devices, will not yield to IBM. If IBM isn’t able to outmaneuver Amazon, Alexa may be able to take over a new and potentially lucrative market. The company has already got a large share of customers, hooked on to Amazon offers and festive sales.
Amazon as these digital assistants are designed to behave in a more human manner and are expected to respond to spoken sentences, like, “What’s the weather outside?” or “Find restaurants near me” with the response generated as speech. The IBM assistant does not work in a similar way, and you cannot input voice commands into an IBM-branded speaker anytime soon.
Instead, Watson Assistant is more of a behind-the-scenes brains guy, or a blueprint, for the development of new digital helpers made by a variety of businesses for your home and in stores, airports, hotels, and cars.
Currently, Munich Airport has been using the Watson Assistant inside its premises to power a robot which can tell directions and gate information to lost and weary passengers. The assistant is also currently being used by BMW to develop a new in-car voice helper. UK based Chameleon Technology has also created a Watson Assistant-driven platform called I-VIE that helps people manage their energy usage.
Bret Greenstein, IBM’s global vice president for IoT products, said in his statement, “We looked at the market for assistants and realized there was something else needed to make it easier for companies to use.”
IBM’s new assistant is enjoying fairly good reviews and its popularity is slowly increasing. The assistant should help IBM’s AI become a more relevant part of consumers’ lives in the near future. Many people are already familiar with Watson, due to its very famous visit on “Jeopardy” seven years ago, where it managed to impress the audience. IBM is set to face tough competition from Amazon, its main rival in this market. Amazon’s efforts can be summed up in a single line ‘Alexa, be more human’. Their efforts are centered on making its voice assistant smarter, chattier and more like an average consumer.
Amazon has already been making moves in the business world. In November last year, the e-commerce global announced a new service called Alexa for Business, which will expand its assistant’s reach into office settings. Amazon has also partnered with a few carmakers to bring Alexa into their vehicles. Amazon even has plans for luxury hotels. Wynn Las Vegas has even rolled out plans to bring Alexa to every one of its 4,748 hotel rooms.
Bret Greenstein provided another statement, saying that IBM wasn’t introducing Watson Assistant into the market as an offensive move against Alexa, but because the business partners and customers are asking for it. He argued that companies with more sensitive information, like energy utilities and telecommunications providers, will be more likely to use Watson Assistant than a mainstream consumer brand like Alexa or Apple’s Siri, because of the higher degree of control they would have over their information, along with better customer experience. These companies will also be able to name their assistants as they prefer, because they’ll be using Watson as only a base and not a finished product, helping them maintain a relationship with their customers, instead of handing it over to another company like Amazon, Greenstein added.
Although remarkable, it begs the question. How many assistants are too many assistants? Remembering all those new names may be a new problem for users, as the market might get flooded with a variety of new digital assistants.
Amazon currently has an already strong ecosystem of various smart-home gadgets, and with Alexa skills, the combination will be hard to beat. Consumer awareness about Alexa rose to a whopping 89 percent in the US last year, according to a recent RBC Capital Markets survey. IBM’s view on the matter is less than positive. With Greenstein expressing concerns over one assistant ruling over everyone.