By Dan Granger
The call came out of the blue. His name was Robert Blaisch. Just 57 years old, weathered, but bursting with vision and a deep understanding of the inner workings of emerging technology. A former hippy restauranteur with a Berkeley degree, Bob was the father of “The Voice Internet.” This overwhelmingly ambitious tech company had spent ten years in stealth mode.
Since 1997, he had doggedly pursued his vision of an interconnected world, where voice would give us instant access to anything imaginable. He purchased the vanity phone number 1-800-555-5555 to serve as the single point of entry and operating system for a new worldwide web of audio. His laboratory was buried below the Louise Green Millinery Co. along the 405 Freeway in West Los Angeles. I was in my late 20s and reaching for minor innovations in the radio industry. Immediately, I fell head over heels for his mad scientist routine and would be the Marty McFly to his Doc. I set up pitches and leveraged my radio experience to give him contact with the industry he sought to reengineer.
“Duck Pizza”! This he would shout into his cell phone as a demonstration of the platform’s capabilities to fulfill even the most obscure of fantasies for transacting commerce via voice command. He would trot out surrogate father and Academy Award winning Actor, Martin Landau, bringing an old Hollywood charm and credibility to his offering. While on paper, his strategy was flawless, every demo seemed to fail mid-pitch as his speech recognition software just could not keep pace with his vision. Any enthusiasm from corporate executives waned with every botched demo. We cobbled together a few small deals to test the system’s usefulness to advertisers, but this nascent technology could not support a sustainable business.
Soon, I moved on and redirected my energy to make way for the coming of the Great Podcast Revolution. Bob fought valiantly for another decade. Two years ago, all out of money and a Rolodex long worn thin, Bob awoke from his impossible dream. Scrapping “The Voice Internet” for parts, he sold the world’s best vanity phone number to a law firmThe Voice Internet had been disconnected.
In a tragic coincidence, the demise of “The Voice Internet” occurred at the precise moment that a voice-connected internet was reborn in the form of Amazon Echo, Google Home, and Apple HomePod. All along, Robert Blaisch had been right in his vision, but wrong in his timing. And, perhaps, execution.
In technology, timing is everything. But like gazing out at the stars with the naked eye, what appears to be the present is only an approximation of the way things once were. To predict where things are going, we must triangulate from the known past as well as our imagination.
For those of us who are not technological futurists by trade, how are we to live and adapt to the changing of an era? We have witnessed The Information Age and watched it dismantle and reorganize our reality as we knew it. Now we feel the tremors of a new wave of technology. For the first time, we are legitimately unsure of our future value or ability to compete with the forthcoming capabilities of machines.
If there were prom for the telecommunications industry in 2019, podcast would be the belle of the ball. As a market force, though, it is still small potatoes. Under $500 Million as an industry, it is less than 4% of terrestrial’s business. We’re not even talking Roku money here. Soon podcast will cross the $1Billion threshold, but even then we’re talking about less than 1% of the digital revenue pie. Podcast has been a rising star for the past five years, much more pronounced since the launch of pervasively popular Serial, and ushering in an assured programming renaissance.
The very subject has commanded international buzz and on the digital pages of trade publications, a great deal of ink has been spilt. However, in light of the changes occurring beneath the crust of the telecommunications industry, podcast is more like a Red Dwarf. A tour de force, definitely, but a warm up act to the oncoming fundamental disestablishment of everything we’ve understood about the transmission of audio and how it impacts our lives.
Do you hear what I hear? In less than five years, Amazon, Google, and Apple (combined market cap north of $2.5 Trillion) have put smart speakers into the hands and homes of more than 50 million Americans, with half of those owning two or more. Though championed by titans and heading toward inevitable ubiquity, the current capabilities of the smart speaker are laughable. Modern usage is not much further advanced or reliable than a clock radio with a thermometer, mixed with audio’s version of AskJeeves. It could be a whole house remote control for your mouth if only your smart devices had developed seamless integration. It is an audiobook library as well as a researcher; a personal secretary; food delivery service; a gaming device, and it keeps you company. Many worry it’s a spy. It’s Google. But not really. Not yet.
“Alexa, tell me when you’ve worked out the kinks” may be well and good for consumers who have not yet seen its capabilities prove any more valuable than the loss of privacy. Yet working professionals and industry cannot afford to take this approach. By looking at the history of telecommunications, we get a glimpse of what lies ahead.
Smart speaker technology today is like the days of dial-up internet access. When broadband stepped onto the scene around 2003, things got interesting. Entertainment, commerce, storage, mobility, were all radically transformed in the decade that followed. Your smart speaker may be acting like America Online at this second, but the onslaught of 5G is going to help it catch up in short as digital information will process 10-100 times faster than it is today. Keep in mind that, in 2019, smart speakers are expected to grow faster than any other IoT device category. We are entering what some are calling “the post-smartphone era”.
I will not use this venue to explore the privacy implications or Muskian concerns of cyborg wars and robot dictators. These topics have their place, but our immediate aim is to sidestep them. My chief goal, is to help you stay employed—and thriving—as these technological advancements march forward, with the wind at your back rather than blowing against you.
So what’s next? You will find soon find your smart speaker smarter, growing more so every day. No longer a mere device that can listen and respond, it will move toward advanced prediction and personalization, as recommendations from machine learning become exponentially more sophisticated and useful. Imagine calling a customer service line where extroverts prefer the machine over a live agent. Then it’s also a companion who shares your interests and converses with you about them in ways you have only seen in fiction.
Your smart speaker is a coach and a teacher, too. But this teacher possesses all the world’s knowledge and can distill it into words and voice that appeal to your personal learning style and preferences. Siri will take on the voice of your desired celebrity, like Waze does today, but directing you through your life, not just traffic, and becoming infinitely more adaptable. It can play nanny to your child while you’re cooking—or help with homework. Alexa is your therapist.
Remember social media? How would you like to be transported into conversations with someone you’ve never met, but are more compatible with you than 99.9% of the people you encounter IRL. Perhaps it could help your dating chances. Don’t bother filling out a profile, though, since your smart speaker has been filling it out (and updating it) for you while it observes your interactions and interests in your every waking hour for years. Wait until it matches you with compatible users live, based on any criteria it can think of, ready to explore any topic on your mind. The world has become infinitely smaller.
As IoT evolves with equal rapidity, the usefulness of your smart speaker will be amplified by devices dealing with other senses. How will sound engage with sight, smell, taste, and touch? Are you hungry? Wearable technology will know what food will balance your taste preference, mood, weight goals, nutrient deficiencies, food allergies, and more; you don’t have to think of what you want for dinner because it already knows. Approve the Alexa suggestion, and a drone will deliver the perfect meal to your door in minutes.
Are you lonely, but don’t want to deal with human behavior? Proxies of real people await your company. Recorded data from other users can be accessed, forming a composite of that person to provide a credible approximation of what statements they might make; how they would respond to your question, in their voice; even using their speaking patterns, accents, intonations, vocal tics, and incredible likeness. The more data captured by or about an individual, the better HomePod can approximate them. In the absence of data, it can extrapolate from the known and statistically probable statements from lookalike personas. And you can now watch any movie, show, or sporting event with anyone you desire, whether you’ve met or not. Adjust the settings if you would rather they hold their complaints.
It can raise the dead.
What would Abraham Lincoln do? At some point, an apparition will let you know. Once all his speeches, letters, testimony from witnesses, images, and recreations have been fed into a machine learning system, 3-D Holograms will bring his being into your physical space. How many others have passed away that are now available to engage with you?
How far are we at “AI learning” so much about our preferences and response patterns that it can in fact predict your thoughts and decode your imagination? At what point will it know what we want before we want it and will it know what we are willing to do to get the things that we want? The possibilities may be too extraordinary to consider for practical purposes.
How then shall we live amongst the smart speakers? One era at a time. When we bought that first iPod, we didn’t know we were creating the podcast industry, or that this smart device would evolve into the smartphone. The first step is to recognize that your smart speaker is more than a modern radio to keep in your home. The smart speaker is infinitely learning and expanding on its abilities. We have discovered a new world—and now we must till the soil.
Think back a quarter century. If you knew then what you know now, what would you do differently? How would you direct your energy to be ready for a world of web pages and search engines? Let’s start there. Pay less attention to every shooting star, lest your back be turned at your only chance to catch Hailey’s Comet. “The Voice Internet” has arrived. The next 10 years will be unlike any in human history. So what are you going to do about it?
Dan Granger is the CEO and founder of Oxford Road, a leading ad agency and ad-tech developer. Since starting Oxford Road in 2013, Dan has teamed with countless “unicorn” companies on TV, radio and podcast advertisements on some of the country’s biggest shows, including Tim Ferriss and Joe Rogan.