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A Year in Review: Conversational AI in 2020
Despite the pandemic, lockdown, and everything else we’ve been through in 2020, it was quite an eventful year for the Conversational AI industry. Speech technologies helped in the global fight against the Covid-19, AI-powered conversational agents stepped in as businesses transitioned online and people started using voice-powered smart speakers more often — a recent Adobe survey showed that because of the pandemic, 77% of voice tech users expect to use it more often over the next year. In this article, I did my best to sum up the most interesting and inspiring use cases for Conversational technologies we saw in 2020.
Conversational agents vs. Covid-19
In the global fight against the pandemic, conversational technologies have been at the forefront from the early days.
By March 2020, popular virtual assistants like Alexa and Apple Siri could offer basic information on the virus, the latter even gave a walk-through of the CDC Covid-19 assessment questions and recommended telehealth apps. Google Assistant also became an important channel for informing people and providing local Covid-19 news.
But most importantly, conversational technologies assisted healthcare providers in screening patients for Coronavirus: AI developer Orbita launched its COVID-19 Virtual Assistant to educate the public and support medical professionals in triaging people potentially contracted with Covid. Microsoft was also among the first tech giants to offer its Covid-19 chatbot to enable healthcare providers to screen people potentially infected with the coronavirus. Some companies, like healthcare AI startup Hyro, released free versions of their assistants for medical providers with a focus on Covid-related questions.
Healthcare providers also relied on voice assistants for effective patient interaction: Mayo Clinic was one of the first to publish an official Covid-19 Alexa skill to provide “trusted information from credible sources.”
During the lockdown, some health institutions like dentists provide emergency care amid the Corona crisis and needed assistance in triaging patients — for such cases dental software developer Awrel created a chatbot for dentists to screen patients in need of emergency care.
Another great example is the use of conversational technologies to test patients’ voices for Covid-19: earlier this month Vocalis Health completed its voice test pilot in Mumbai, India. The startup has collected more than 2,000 voice samples, which it now needs to analyze with an ambition to expand the program next year.
Of course, the Covid pandemic has affected our lives in so many ways that it’ll take us years to understand. However, the city of Seoul made its first attempt to analyze the impact, launching an IBM’s Watson virtual assistant to survey the aftermath.
AI-driven healthcare revolution
There’s a lot of talk about healthcare making a major shift to telemedicine due to the pandemic: in May 2020 McKinsey & Company reported that providers “were seeing 50 to 175 times the number of patients via telehealth than they had done before”, adding that “$250 billion of current US healthcare spend could potentially be virtualized.” And since Conversational AI is such a big part of digital transformation, here are the most common use cases for remote healthcare:
The COVID-19 health crisis put a heavy strain on medical resources, so medical transcription and analysis services are increasingly in demand. Nuance’s Dragon transcription program has been around since 2017, but in early 2020 Amazon launched Transcribe Medical — a medical transcription service in direct competition with Nuance. In September, Nvidia presented its advanced Bio-Megatron medical speech transcription system. All in all, companies offering related services like Saykara, Suki, Orbita, and Deepgram have been on the rise this year and attracted funds
Tech companies have been increasingly using conversational technologies to improve doctor-to-patient communication and streamline processes in healthcare facilities.
Voice assistants became an efficient channel for doctor-to-patient interaction: thus, Atrium Health and Australian health insurer Nib were among those to launch custom Alexa skills to enable users to access medical health and connect with nearby medical providers.
Nuance has successfully integrated its Dragon medical virtual assistant with Wolters Kluwer clinical database and Cerner health record platform, enabling more physicians to use voice to fill in and search electronic health records, as well as ask for suggested treatments, medication doses, or potential side effects.
However, it’s not just the Coronavirus that conversational technologies help diagnose and tame — IBM in collaboration with Pfizer discovered a way to utilize machine learning on clinical verbal tests to predict Alzheimer’s disease years before the standard symptoms show with an accuracy rate of 70%.
Homes, Families and Conversational AI
The pandemic has put a halt to nearly everything. Being locked inside their homes affected people on many levels, including the way they consume content. NPR and Edison Research discovered that “a growing percentage of U.S. smart speaker owners” turned to their devices to “listen for information and entertainment” during the lockdown. British marketing firm IAB UK found out that both supply and demand for audio content have increased during the quarantine.
Naturally, tech giants tried to cater to the needs of people trapped inside their houses on many levels: from helping parents to home-school their children with the Family Bell feature like Google to enabling families to monitor seniors living alone — just like Amazon Alexa did with its recent development. Authorities even used voice assistants to promote energy savings during the lockdown — Ireland’s Commission for Regulation of Utilities launched their first-ever marketing campaign the Switch On to Savings, Rights, and Safety focusing mainly on Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa.
Since smart speakers and displays became centers of gravity for family entertainment, both Google and Amazon kept on heavily investing in kid- and family-friendly content. In September, Amazon launched new Echo dot smart speakers in a cute design and with a kid-savvy Alexa to go. Google, in its turn, helped users discover only the best games for smart displays, showcasing them in the Google Assistant marketing moment. And I’m extremely proud to say that the most recent one featured a game designed by Just AI — Power of Words is an interactive puzzle game for families.
The promise of voice in mobile apps
Shafin Tejani of Victory Square Technologies in his article names voice tech “the post-crisis standard,” stating that «the voice and speech recognition market is expected to grow at a 17.2% compound annualized rate to reach $26.8 billion by 2025.»
At the same time, a recent Smartphone Voice Assistant Consumer Adoption Report by Voicebot.ai says that 45% of consumers would like to have voice assistant features within their favorite mobile apps. This year, we’ve seen (and this trend will continue) more companies introduce voice control capabilities in their apps — from financial giants to major baseball league. Also, technology providers are readily accepting the challenge: Google introduced updates “designed to improve the speed and performance of voice apps” along with voice app discovery enhancements.
Voice technology platform Spokestack introduced a way to import an app used by Alexa or Google Assistant on a smart speaker or smart display to a mobile platform.
Just AI also launched a product enabling a smooth transition to voice tech for Android developers — the first open-source Kotlin-based conversational AI platform JAICF — allowing users to design and implement conversational interfaces of any complexity. So in the next few years, we should expect a rise of voice-controlled mobile apps.
So those are the key developments in the Conversational AI industry that I’d picked for this recap. I know that no list is ever complete, so please let me know what you think should be added here. All in all, it looks like we’re off for another eventful year in the industry