Data Analytics

The Year of Alexa

Published on January 31st, 2017

One of the key trends for 2017 is that of intelligent personal assistants, which is finding hooks into every corner of our lives. Combined with artificial intelligence at the core of the systems leading the charge, assistants have become seriously good at understanding natural language and connecting to the information systems required to answer just about any question - even those that users don’t realise they should be asking. The movement is real, and fintech startups should be thinking about how it will impact their products.

The annual CES convention in Las Vegas recently concluded, with over 300 000 people converging on the Convention Centre for displays of the world’s most cutting edge consumer technologies. This year’s show was packed predominantly with drones, virtual reality, and smart devices from tooth and hair brushes to washing machines and cars. However, there was a prevailing presence that dominated CES and provided a glimpse of the future of computing interfaces and the next big thing for banks and other fintech companies.

The presence in question was Amazon’s Alexa - the artificial intelligence that powers Amazon’s Echo, Dot and other personal assistant products. Thanks to the technology being openly available to third-parties, Alexa can be built into just about anything and is being. Car radios, alarm clocks, home stereos and many other devices showed off integration with Alexa at the trade show.

Sales for the new Dot device, in particular, showed that Amazon has claimed an early lead on the market and is outselling everyone’s estimates.

Amazon’s leading competitors in the intelligent personal assistant space are Apple with Siri, Google Assistant, and Microsoft Cortana. Right now Amazon is leading the race, much to even its own surprise, and especially in the key market of the USA. Apple was slightly ahead of the curve with Siri, but satisfaction ratings show that Amazon and Google are currently delighting more customers, even if Google does have a long way to go in terms of market penetration. Microsoft is putting Cortana on every modern Windows desktop, which will further familiarise many with the technology.

Amazon did not see this coming. CEO Jeff Bezos reportedly called the Echo project “stupid” when engineers first showed it to him, and it almost wasn’t launched. Now Alexa is a focus for Amazon, who released data showing that owners of Echo devices spent 10% more with the online retailer during 2016.

Intelligent personal assistants are here to stay and are fast becoming a primary interface for many use cases in the post-app era. People are increasingly talking to their phones, their cars, and now their houses too, in situations that allow for it.

Fintech startups are not being left behind. Cleo, a personal financial management startup, for example, has added Amazon Alexa support so that users can ask about their finances, for example, what the combined balance is of the bank accounts they have linked to the service. Other startups are also testing payments using Alexa, or daily briefings on financial portfolios that are delivered via the device every morning. The guy who reads out economic indicators on radio should be worried.

For fun, I used Google Voice Typing in Docs 2 Thai part of this article, including this paragraph. Ironically, this is also the only paragraph it made an error in (see the previous sentence). This is the same technology that powers the voice interface for Google Assistant, and it’s quite incredible how good it has become.

People generally distrust any new technology, and fintech faces the challenge of wary consumers still getting their heads around 2012’s technology - so it might be some time before they’re ready to actually talk to a computer about their money. That said, the early adopters are here and the market leaders aren’t wasting their time. Alexa is everywhere. And she’s listening.