A letter from Silicon Valley
The butler who lives in the cloud
Until now, personal assistants have been a privilege enjoyed by busy managers. However, the masterminds of the high-tech industry are now planning a service revolution: a butler for everyone. In the future, artificial intelligence will organise your car’s service, make hair appointments and even look out suitable singletons for you to date.
Sometimes Silicon Valley exudes its very own, special kind of magic. This was the case when Steve Jobs presented the iPhone on 9 January 2007. He had developed a magical, revolutionary product. I experienced a similar moment a short while ago when Sundar Pichai, Google's CEO, presented "Google Duplex" at the annual developers' conference. It’s a vision of the future - but it'll soon be reality.
And how does it work? I tell the Google assistant to make me a hair appointment for between 4 pm and 8 pm next Thursday, and ideally, for bang on 4 pm. Or I can tell him to reserve a table for four at my favourite restaurant at 8 pm next Saturday. Google then picks up the phone and makes an appointment (or reserves a table) on behalf of the person giving the command. We're not talking about a Google call-centre employee here. No - the digital assistant, a virtual robot, will make the call, and manage tricky communicative situations itself.
«It’s Google, calling for Amazon»
Of course, the appointment will automatically be entered in your calendar and a reminder will be set up at the same time. I generally take the bus to get to the hairdresser's - so Google will remind me in good time before I need to wrap things up at home so I don't miss the bus. Here's a different example: if I need to take my car to the garage because someone has once again driven into my car in the car park, then, in the future, I can tell my assistant to «get me quotes from every garage in the region and make an appointment for me at the garage that's the best value!».
So, soon every garage will have to hire someone to deal with the countless calls they'll receive from the Google assistant. I'm sure that Google is already working on developing its assistant for corporate use. Amazon, with its huge customer base of SMEs, might even train Alexa to negotiate with Google's butler.
This means that, in the near future, we won't have to talk to service providers ourselves - and they won't have to talk to their customers, either. The two assistants will do it instead. They’ll call each other day in, day out to make appointments, negotiate prices or just kill time. The more tasks I delegate to my assistant, the more information he can collect about me, and the better he’ll know what I prefer.
I'm convinced that technologies like Google Duplex will be the next push towards the digital revolution. Digitisation has been somewhat dragging its heels in terms of small and medium-sized businesses, in particular. Hairdressers still like to use their appointment book to make a note of their clients' bookings. The same goes for owners of small restaurants. According to Google, 60 percent of all SMEs in the USA still don't have an online booking system. Things aren't any better in Switzerland. This means that there's a huge amount of information that's still written down in pencil in small companies' appointment books and notepads - and not available digitally.
My experience with Clara
It can be a pain for customers, too, if they can't get in touch using their mobile or their computer to make an appointment, as they've got used to. Nowadays, who picks up the phone to make a phone call? We prefer to write emails or chat with friends on WhatsApp. If we need to actually talk to someone, we use one of these many digital communication channels to arrange the conversation, or at least to ensure that the person we want to speak to is available and has time for us. Google now wants to use Google Duplex to solve all these problems.
And a good butler doesn't just deal with business-related issues. For example, if I'm looking for a partner, I soon wouldn't need to sit through any more boring dates. My personal assistant would confer with his colleagues. He'd then look for (and find) the perfect match for me. And of course, then he'd reserve the perfect restaurant and tickets for the cinema where our favourite film is playing. When I have these thoughts, I just ask how exciting and surprising our life would be then. What would happen if we're only ever faced with things that we already like? Would my agent also offer me new experiences? Would he bring me face-to-face with new challenges? If I love classical music, would he suddenly send me to a rock concert? Fortunately, we're a good few years away from this reality.
Or are we? I recently wanted to take a close look at a company that's got offices in Asia and the USA. To do this, I wanted to loop in another colleague from Switzerland. Once again, we had to arrange a meeting with participants living in three different time zones. Despite all the digital aids at my disposal, this is still a huge challenge for me. So, I wrote to the CEO of the company based in South Korea to ask if we could have a chat on the phone at some stage over the next few days. He replied to me by return, cc’ing his assistant Clara and tasking her with arranging our meeting.
Clara immediately got in touch to suggest a couple of dates which she would then pass on to my colleague in Switzerland if they were suitable. Unfortunately, none of the dates worked for me, so I suggested two alternatives. As soon as the next day, Clara invited us to join a conference call. At the same time, she sent me an email with her boss's mobile number. This was only to be used if things didn't work out with the conference call...
I thanked her for getting everything sorted so quickly and wished her a pleasant, and sunny, weekend. She did the same and said that I should get in touch at any time if there were any issues or if anything cropped up that meant I couldn't make the meeting. The next week, when I was wrapping up my chat with the CEO of this company, I told him how arranging the meeting had been quick and easy thanks to the help offered by his assistant. He just said that she still had things to learn, and sometimes found the different time zones tricky. When he said this, I asked if Clara had just recently started working for him. He couldn't hold back his laughter anymore and told me: "Clara is an artificial intelligence system!". Previously, I'd always noticed when I was talking to a machine or a chatbot. This was the first time I hadn’t realised I wasn't talking to an actual person. It was also the first time I'd told a robot to have a nice weekend - an experience that was as exciting as it was unsettling.
Simon Zwahlen: Vice President of Business Development & Innovation at Swisscom in Palo Alto, California.
When do you think Google Duplex will first be useable?
Semi-public tests have been taking place with a reference group since July. At the moment, the software can be used for tasks that are on the simpler side, like making appointments. I think that Google will go public at this level in the USA at the start of 2019.
What other companies are working on virtual assistants?
This is a constant neck-to-neck race in Silicon Valley. In addition to the big providers, there are probably hundreds of start-ups trying to occupy this niche. However, complex applications need a lot of skills in terms of artificial intelligence and natural linguistic interaction. Google is the clear frontrunner here, ahead of Amazon.
What does this trend mean for Swisscom?
We want to make our customers' lives easier and offer them the optimum experience. For example, this starts with offering voice control in Swiss dialect for Swisscom TV. We are also carrying out tests in a few Swisscom shops using a robot to handle the simplest of customer enquiries.
How can a Swiss hairdresser or restaurant use digitisation today to simplify interactions with customers?
There are already various digital solutions for reserving a table or making an appointment. We offer holistic solutions for SMEs with localsearch. However, our employees sense that many companies are reluctant to take this up.
Are human service professions at risk?
Jobs that solely revolve around knowledge being accessed can be automated. The situation is different in the case of services that require a relationship of trust with the customer, or where human intuition is needed. In general, how the individual elements of humans and machines can combine needs to be considered in the future, too.
– Android: Almost 80 percent of smartphones around the globe use Android, Google's operating system.
– Artificial Intelligence (AI): Artificial intelligence is the key technology of the future. The term describes machines that are able to learn things and react to their environment.
– Chatbot: A robot which can send automatically generated text messages and answer simple questions.
– Duplex: Google's newest application for artificial intelligence. According to Google, this is software which helps «accomplish real-world tasks».
– Google Maps: Google's digital map with location recognition.
– Whatsapp:The most commonly used app around the world for exchanging text messages, voice messages and files via smartphones.
Swisscom tracks what’s going on in the digital world around the globe, with their network stretching from Shanghai to Silicon Valley. Simon Zwahlen is one of their leading specialists. He provides Weltwoche with weekly reports on the hottest trends and most fascinating developments.