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IBM’s Watson Assistant lets any company build Alexa-like voice interfaces

IBM’s Watson Assistant lets any company build Alexa-like voice interfaces


You get a voice assistant, and you get a voice assistant, and you...

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One early integration of Watson Assistant is in a Maserati concept car.
One early integration of Watson Assistant is in a Maserati concept car.
Image: Harman / Erik John Ricardo

IBM is today launching Watson Assistant, a new service aimed at companies looking to build voice-activated virtual assistants for their own products. Want your hotel’s rooms to remember a guest’s preferences for air-con? Or your car’s dashboard to be controllable via voice interface? IBM’s message to companies is: we can help you build that.

It’s an interesting pitch, especially as voice assistants like Amazon’s Alexa are being integrated into new arenas. (See, for example, the Wynn Las Vegas’s decision to install Echoes in every room.) IBM says this shows the popularity of conversational interfaces, and believes companies should choose Watson Assistant over Alexa or Siri for a number of reasons — namely: branding, personalization, and privacy.

First, Watson Assistant is a white label product. There’s no Watson animated globe, or “OK Watson” wake-word — companies can add their own flair rather than ceding territory to Amazon or Apple. Second, clients can train their assistants using their own datasets, and IBM says it’s easier to add relevant actions and commands than with other assistant tech. And third, each integration of Watson Assistant keep its data to itself, meaning big tech companies aren’t pooling information on users’ activities across multiple domains.

“If you start running the entire world through Alexa it’s an enormous amount of data and control to give to one company,” IBM’s vice president of Watson IoT, Bret Greenstein, tells The Verge. Looking at this week’s Cambridge Analytica and Facebook scandal, it’s easy to see the benefits of keeping data out of the hands of powerful intermediaries.

IBM has already secured a couple of small partnerships for Watson Assistant. One with Harman, building a voice assistant for a Maserati concept car; another at Munich airport, where Watson Assistant is powering a Pepper robot that offers visitors directions; and a third with smart home company Chameleon Technologies, where the voice tech powers its smart home meter.

It’s not clear how useful these integrations will really be

The problem is, it’s not clear how useful these integrations will really be. Anyone who’s used Google Assistant or Alexa knows how inconsistent these products are, so why would we expect companies without their expertise to do a better job when adapting off-the-shelf services? To take a cynical view, it seems like companies are adding voice controls just to say they can — not because it’s helpful.

It’s worth noting that the underlying tech here isn’t new either. Watson Assistant is made from features cherrypicked from existing IBM products, Watson Conversation and Watson Virtual Agent, as well as the company’s language and conversation analytics APIs. These are already used for building chatbots, but they don’t offer any particular advantages over what’s on offer from Google, Microsoft, and Amazon.

IBM says it’s aware there will be teething problems with integrating Watson Assistant into third-party products. Greenstein compares it to the early days of web design, when companies were still in the “flashing GIF stage” and figuring out what worked best. “What does it mean when a user says ‘um’ to an assistant? How do you best respond to that?” says Greenstein. But, of course, the company is confident the situation will improve. “The key is Watson understands you — remembering who you are, your context and your needs,” says Greenstein.

And if IBM is right, we’ll all have to get used to a little more conversation.