Once upon a time, if you wanted directions, you were limited to reading a map or asking out; moreover, if you wanted to know today’s weather, you had to check a newspaper or wait for it on the TV. Then, smartphones changed everything: all of the information was on your phone, and all you had to do was to check it. Now, however, we’re moving beyond even that. As computer science professor Randy Pausch said: “Sometimes all you have to do is ask, and it can lead to all your dreams coming true.”
Thanks to the advent of smart speakers, such as the Amazon Echo series, Google Home series, Microsoft’s INVOKE, and Apple’s HomePod, essentially, all you have to do is just talk and let the smart speaker respond. Not only are these devices growing in popularity worldwide, with the number of users estimated to increase 250% from the end of 2017 to the end of 2018, but people are using them for an increasingly wide array of tasks. Before getting ahead of ourselves, it’s important to look at the word that specifically makes these units particularly different, the speaker, and how its varied definitions almost eerily fit the mold of our technology du jour.
Initially meaning, “one who speaks or talks”, the term speaker originated as the Old Frisian spreker, and was first used in English in Robert Manning’s Middle English devotional work, Handlyng Synne (Handling Sin) (1303), writing “The foul word the speaker dareth.” In smart speaker terms, this is where we interact with the voice-recognizing AI; once we are done speaking with it, the unit itself will recognize what we have said and reply to us. Furthermore, the replies are getting better: AI is increasingly getting better at understanding what we say, with Google reporting last year that its Assistant AI understood up to 6 different voices and 95% accuracy of English words.
Aside from simply being one who speaks, our word began to attain a representative sense, with its first use in the UK’s House of Commons as someone presiding over a debate circa 1400, with the Brut Chronicle mentioning that: “This same Piers was chosen to be speaker for the communes in the Parliament.” More generalised, Brian Melbancke’s 1583 work, Philotimus, states that: “Princes you know in parliament houses have their speakers, to declare their pleasures, and ease themselves.” Basically, this definition strikes at the core of what makes smart speakers so practical: we ask them to perform a task (or, in Amazon Alexa’s case, one of more than 30,000 tasks), and, on our behalf, they perform it and report the necessary information to us.
Of the more modern definitions of the term speaker is its hyphenated usage to refer to those who speak a particular language, first noted in 1875 by William Whitney in The Life and Growth of Language (“The difficulty is one which English-speakers can hardly realize.”). Though English is an international language and typically the initial language developed by the big players in this industry, there is a realization that, in order to market devices globally, localised versions of AI must be made. Amazon, for example, now offers the Echo range in English, German, Japanese, and French; on the other hand, localised competitors, such as Yandex in Russia, Naver Corporation in South Korea, and Tencent, Baidu, Alibaba Group in China, are building language-specific platforms.
All told, this combination of the different aspects of a speaker point to a booming market. With growth expect at a compound annual growth rate of over 20%, a market size of over EUR 25 billion through 2024, and more than 50% of all searches expected to occur by voice within this time period, smart speakers look set to become the new norm. Of course, you won’t have to read about any of this news yourself – all you will need to do is ask Alexa to read it to you.