Amazon Alexa’s Founder On How Voice Tech Will Impact Retail

“I think you’ll be surprised in a couple of years if you speak to a device and it doesn’t reply,” says William Tunstall-Pedoe, the British entrepreneur who created the technology that became Amazon’s voice assistant, Alexa.

Speaking to Liz Bacelar on TheCurrent Innovators podcast, he says his vision for the future of voice technology really is about everything around us being connected.

The UK-based inventor and entrepreneur, whose startup Evi was acquired by Amazon in 2012, said that while today the technology is incredibly nascent, its application in the future is only going to increase.

Amazon’s recent announcement of a myriad of new connected devices using Alexa – including a microwave and a smart plug – aiming to facilitate greater connectivity in the home, take us one step closer to Tunstall-Pedoe’s vision.

Long-term, he believes AI and voice technology have the potential to overtake humans, with an effective virtual assistant being transformative for users. He particularly sees this as the case when talking about retail.

Today, he suggests voice technology is only applicable to shopping at a very basic level – for groceries, for instance, or for replenishment of households goods like detergent or toilet roll. In fact, only about 100,000 people have reportedly bought something via voice interface more than once thus far, according to a report from The Information. But, voice commerce sales did reach $1.8 billion in 2017, and they’re predicted to hit $40 billion by 2022, a study from OC&C Strategy Consultants shows.

Speaking at an event hosted by fashion and technology community, FashMash, in London, he said a more intelligent system is needed to make that a reality. “What we really want is a kind of superhuman sales assistant that you can have a conversation with – an AI that would be showing you product, answering questions and taking into account your circumstances to sell you something. It has the potential of basically what a really good sales person would do.”

“It shouldn’t be that surprising that people are not doing that much shopping of new products just with voice assistants right now, they want to see it and touch it. We are very very early right now; we are only nibbling at the edges of buying things… Once you can create a sales assistant at scale, then that would be transformative. But for very personalized experiences, that is not possible just yet.”

Having departed Amazon in 2016, and since been working with a multitude of startups around the globe, many of them focused on all different areas under the artificial intelligence header, Tunstall-Pedoe is bullish on this direction of travel. “There is a lot of technology in the future, that hasn’t been invented yet, that is going to make this better. It’s a very exciting time and it’s only just beginning.”

On the podcast episode, the duo also talk about Tunstall-Pedoe’s passion for creating world-changing products powered by AI, how voice tech could change retail, and which one of the Alexa Skills is really the most useful to him.

Listen here: Apple Podcasts | Android | Google Podcasts | Stitcher | Spotify | RSS

Rachel Arthur is Chief Innovation Officer of TheCurrent, an innovation consultancy transforming how fashion and retail brands intersect with technology. She is also the editor of its news site, TheCurrent Daily, and co-host of its podcast TheCurrent Innovators.