Amazon’s Alexa Is Ready for Work

Amazon’s Alexa Is Ready for Work

Last November, Amazon announced that it was bringing its voice-controlled assistant Alexa into the workplace, launching Alexa for Business at its its annual AWS re:Invent conference. This week, the company revealed how far the enterprise version of Alexa has come, who is using it, and how the product is being applied in business settings. Amazon Chief Technology Officer Werner Vogels expanded on these points in a post on his blog, All Things Distributed:

Voice interfaces are a paradigm shift, and we’ve worked to remove the heavy lifting associated with integrating Alexa voice capabilities into more devices. For example, Alexa Voice Service (AVS), a cloud-based service that provides APIs to interface with Alexa, enables products built using AVS to have access to Alexa capabilities and skills.

We’re also making it easy to build skills for the things you want to do. This is where the Alexa Skills Kit and the Alexa Skills Store can help both companies and developers. Some organizations may want to control who has access to the skills that they build. In those cases, Alexa for Business allows people to create a private skill that can only be accessed by employees in your organization. In just a few months, our customers have built hundreds of private skills that help voice-enabled employees do everything from getting internal news briefings to asking what time their help desk closes.

Alexa for Business is now capable of interfacing with common enterprise applications like Salesforce, Concur, and ServiceNow, Vogels added, while IT developers can use the Alexa Skills Kit to enable custom apps as well. WeWork, one early adopter of the service, has “built private skills for Alexa that employees can use to reserve conference rooms, file help tickets for their community management team, and get important information on the status of meeting rooms.”

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Microsoft Teams Touts 200,000 Enterprise Users, Rolls out New Features

Microsoft Teams Touts 200,000 Enterprise Users, Rolls out New Features

Microsoft on Monday marked the first anniversary of the global launch of Microsoft Teams, the tech giant’s entry into the burgeoning workplace chat and collaboration software market, noting that the platform is now used by 200,000 organizations in 181 markets and 39 languages. Teams is also introducing new features this year, including a cloud recording system for meetings, inline message translation, and integration with Microsoft’s voice assistant, Cortana.

TechCrunch’s Sarah Perez takes a closer look at the new features and how they fit into the accelerating race to become the ultimate enterprise communication tool:

The added integration with Cortana’s voice assistance could give Microsoft an edge in its battle with Slack, given the increasing importance of voice-based computing in the workplace and within business productivity applications.

Microsoft and Amazon announced last year their voice assistants, Cortana and Alexa, would work together, for example. Meanwhile, companies – including Microsoft – have been working to make their applications and services work well with voice assistants given the potential of voice computing in the workplace. …

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Tech Giants Step up Competition in Voice-Activated Enterprise Tech

Tech Giants Step up Competition in Voice-Activated Enterprise Tech

Last year saw a sharp rise in investment in AI-driven voice-command technology for workplace use, with Amazon’s Alexa and Microsoft’s Cortana beginning to take on enterprise roles, amid growing investments by these companies in AI. Based on how heavily voice-activated tools were promoted at last week’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES 2018), this year will see Google, Facebook, Samsung, Apple, and Cisco make moves in that market as well.

Fast Company’s Mark Sullivan pronounced Amazon the “winner” of CES before it even began, noting the omnipresence of the Alexa virtual assistant in everything from speakers to smart mirrors and automobiles. Sullivan noted an eMarketer survey which said that 45.4 million Americans will be using an AI assistant this year, 68 percent of whom will be using Alexa. HP, Acer, Asus, and Lenovo all launched Windows 10 PCs with two virtual assistants, Alexa and Microsoft’s notably less popular Cortana, but at this moment, it appears Alexa has the strongest foothold in the enterprise market.

“As we begin 2018, Alexa shows the strongest partner ecosystem — with the most hardware partners and the most skills — and an increasing presence in the office with Alexa for Business,” Forrester vice president and principal analyst J.P. Gownder told Computerworld.

Sullivan noted that Google made its presence felt at CES as well, but they did it with aggressively placed ads on buildings and public transportation. Still, Google Assistant is not far behind Alexa and has some built-in advantages. Amazon was the first to launch such a product, releasing Alexa in 2014, but Google has a wealth of institutional knowledge in the AI space and also has the widely-used Android mobile platform to drive adoption and streamlined integration of Google Assistant. So far, Assistant is on touchscreen-enabled devices by Sony, JBL, and Lenovo, and also slated to go into LG and GE appliances, in addition to cars through the Android Auto offering, according to VentureBeat.

Microsoft’s Cortana has a chance to succeed in the workplace market thanks to its presence through Office 365 and LinkedIn, but will have a long way to go if it hopes to supplant Google and Amazon. Another new entrant, Cisco, has an advantage with its new voice-activated technology thanks to its well-established enterprise communication infrastructure. Apple’s Siri is another notable competitor but would need a big push to make gains in the enterprise adoption of its computers and phones to penetrate the workplace market.

Microsoft’s Build Conference Hints at the Workplace of the Future

Microsoft’s Build Conference Hints at the Workplace of the Future

Build, Microsoft’s annual developer conference taking place in Seattle this week, is focusing heavily this year on AI and machine learning, and how the company plans to embed these technologies in the workplace of the near future. Wednesday’s keynote demonstrations showcased what Mark Sullivan at Fast Company calls “a vision of the workplace of the future where workers are surrounded by all manner of cameras, sensors, and other recording devices connected to internet-based AI services”:

Microsoft showed demos and videos of the “intelligent edge” in a variety of forms, in a variety of use cases, and in a variety of industries:

  • A heart patient was walking around wearing a sensor. He began to get tired, so the sensor sent that data up to the cloud for processing, and a nurse was notified to bring him a wheelchair.
  • A camera detected an employee accidentally tipping over a barrel containing a dangerous chemical, information it sent up to image-recognition software in the cloud. Some other database likely helped determine that the liquid in the barrel was hazardous. Presumably an alarm was sent to a cleanup team.
  • An employee in a shop was spotted taking a selfie while brandishing a jackhammer. The brain in the cloud recognized the employee, the activity, and the setting and concluded he was behaving recklessly, then contacted a supervisor.
  • Someone else in a shop was seen not wearing safety goggles. Alarm. Supervisor notified.

All this involves some sophisticated, on-the-fly AI. In the words of the presenter demoing the intelligent edge developer tools at Build: “The solution is running more than 27 million recognitions per second across people, objects, and activities.” But the use cases Microsoft showed onstage sound equal parts helpful and intrusive. Sure, getting a heart patient back to bed or detecting a dangerous chemical spill are health-promoting. But the notifications to the supervisor suggest a completely different, and possibly unintended, consequence of the technology.

“There is benevolent surveillance and then there is just surveillance,” Sullivan worries, “and the Microsoft technology could work in both scenarios.” But CEO Satya Nadella spent part of his time on the Build stage Wednesday dispelling the notion that Microsoft is out to turn the workplace into a surveillance state:

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