Posts in "Commentary" Category

Ok Google, Tell Me About Yourself

Building Machines with Personality

One in four people name their vehicles. In fact, my King Ranch is named Kinsey and she replaced my old Tiburon named Tina. We have been great friends ever since I brought her home from the car lot a few years ago, and by all means, why not? She’s reliable, fun to be with, and takes good care of me and my family whenever we drive across Texas. That is – however – pretty much the full extent of the anthropomorphic relationship that we have built. She is, after all, still a vehicle.

As the world moves gradually more towards a virtually-assisted environment where consumers are naturally comfortable engaging in somewhat natural dialog with machines, software developers and product managers everywhere are wondering whether it is important that these interactions require a digital personality. Digital assistants like Siri and Alexa have made very conscious decisions from the initial releases to include personality into their technology. In fact, part of the digital brands’ reach comes from consumers’ fascination with these virtual agents views on the world. Google, however, has historically refused to build personality into its voice agents – until recently.

Just last year, Google made a key hire in a former Pixar storyboard artist named Emma Coats, whose new role in the Google-plex is specifically focused on developing and driving the personality behind their voice assistant Ok Google. As she works to bring her story-telling background to one of the world’s most advanced artificial intelligence systems, she is also helping to define Google’s own unique strategic stance on design in this realm – such as her believe that AI should play the role of the sidekick versus the lead character, or as she puts it “Slinky Dog, not Buzz or Woody.”

Moving from Search Queries to Conversations

Google’s strategic hire is interesting after taking continued criticism for years over its neutral stance on digital personality. But why is it so critical now? What has changed? Google’s promise to its shareholders has always been to continually drive the development of human-computer interaction with regard to the tasks of information retrieval in whatever ways will lead to its continued profit and dominance of the search market overall. So when the search giant makes such a large move, something must be changing in the landscape as a whole.

This is not the first time Google has had to overcome consumer adoption. In fact, if we remember back to when Google first entered the digital world as a “better search engine,” it was still at a time when consumers everywhere were just being exposed to the Internet for the first time. Google’s clean aesthetic stood in stark contrast to the clutter and energy of competitors like Lycos, GoTo, and others. In fact, the service even forced us to learn a new “pseudo” language of keywords to drive the best results. This stood in stark contrast to competitors like AskJeeves that encouraged users (who were new to the entire concept of a “web page”, let alone a search engine to navigate to those pages) to ask questions in natural language – as if they were asking their local librarian or village sage. Fortunately for Google, not only was the technology for parsing and understanding natural language not advanced enough but consumers’ own expectations of the types of information to look for and inquire about were just not that advanced either.

And thus, Google trained us to use keywords and rewards us daily with relevant content at our fingertips. This has led to its dominance and control over the search experience for billions of people everyday; however, that control is in jeopardy as the voice-assistant landscape evolves.

The Role of the Doodle

Google has employed a Chief Doodler as early in its history as 2000, when Page and Brin appointed an intern Dennis Hwang after a successfully received Doodle for Bastille day. Ever since then, the Doodle has brought a degree of “humanity” to what could very much be one of the coldest daily human-computer interactions in our modern society. The Doodle has such a massive impact on how the search engine is integrated into our lives – in fact, it can even cost the economy millions of dollars when it is “too much fun.”

The fact that Emma’s role reports officially into Doodle team says something quite profound about how the search giant is thinking about the strategic nature of personality with regard to its voice technology. The Doodle team has helped make Google a warm, approachable brand in our hearts, and I imagine Emma’s job description and mandate are nothing short of attempting to do the same for Google’s voice AI’s perception. In a world where Google (and many others) are starting to recognize the potential impact of search queries moving to dialogs, this decision reminds us that only the market can ultimately decide how it wants to embrace new technologies.

Can Personality Win the Voice Wars?

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the coming Voice Wars between two giants of digital commerce: Google and Amazon. With Amazon’s impending release of a paid marketplace for voice-based product queries, an open question still stands as to how profits will shift as search power moves out of the Google sandbox and into new devices and modalities. Since then, Google has made some major moves by releasing its own open integrations with existing retailers – following a similar strategy to its existing dominance over paid ecommerce traffic. This move marks a stern difference in strategy between the two firms that only the market can answer: do customers value variety of retail providers or do they value price and convenience within a close Amazon ecosystem?

Perhaps Google is making a bet with Emma’s position and role that personality will help provide a competitive advantage as consumers make their decisions with their voice and wallet. Personally, I think the real answer will only arise as search technology evolves to support true interactive dialogues. The movement towards bots in the past year has shone a light on just how far we still have to go in creating real conversational value between humans and artificial intelligence. Both Amazon and Google have a rich history and strong technical chops with regard to innovating around the product search and discovery process, so I believe there’s still a great deal of growth ahead of us. Whether personality will play a critical role – or just be a movie side-kick – is still to be seen.

Can We Teach a Machine to Sing?

The Artificial Musician

Recently in the past few weeks, a new artificial intelligence startup, Amper Music, has begun opening up a private beta of its AI-based music composition platform. This system claims to be capable of generating the musician-quality original music, but packaged up and delivered as a service. If their claims are true, this service could fundamentally change the way music is created and delivered for a whole variety of background tasks from restaurant ambient noise to the quintessential elevator music. In a world where the rising cost of music licensing is eating into the gross margins of music streaming services, the premise of an always-available, never hung-over, and infinitely scalable band seems like a godsend to those in the music industry who are trying to help navigate it through its digital transformation safely. However, as stewards of the human condition, we have to ask ourselves: is this a positive or negative net benefit for mankind?

There are, of course, several substantial benefits that an Artificial Musician could bring to the world that just are not possible with just their human counterparts. For example when trying to generate background music for say a powerpoint presentation, an algorithm can identify and understand nuances of the digital context of the presentation – such as the known preferences of the registered presentation attendees pulled from their Spotify profiles – that could be used to tailor the final musical result to not just the tone of the content but also how it might best be perceived. While a human musician could possibly work to understand the tone of the presentation and work with the author to create a compelling work of art, it is simply not possible to take into consideration (simultaneously) the wants and needs of an entire audience full of  stakeholders while also creating a composition on time and on budget.

Muse vs Machine

Interestingly, Amper is not the only company leveraging artificial intelligence to disrupt the music industry. LANDR is a new music technology platform that provides an AI-assisted studio authoring environment at a fraction of the price of professional-grade services. The core premise with their model is that much of the expertise that studio techs bring to music production process is routine and automatable through machine learning. Their platform claims to provide a cheaper, scalable studio process by removing the expensive, manual labor from going from raw creativity to a studio-mastered track. In theory, leveraging LANDR’s platform would not only widen the margin creative artists could make from the sale of their music, but it also could open up a much wider array of independent or part-time musicians to the world of professional music – in a way, increasing the overall creative mix of content in the world by removing the middle-men between creativity and profit.

When contrasting LANDR and Amper’s different approaches to augmenting music production, one must ask where does the human play a critical role in this unique aspect of our culture? A production-assistance platform such as LANDR takes an implicit stance that the spark of creative value resides in the mind of the musician and we simply need to reduce the friction in getting it to market. However, Amper’s product would suggest a view that musical genius – at least for certain use cases – follows a formulaic, automatable process and a machine can be trained to share the same qualities as any other muse out there. For the record, Amper’s leadership does not wish to replace composers, but rather they feel there are two distinct use cases for musical composition – either creative or functional value – and AI can absolutely be used to replace one of them.

How Will Consumers Respond?

Fortunately for mankind, these enterprises do not control one critical factor: consumer opinion and preferences. A big question looming over AI designers in the music field is just how good are the tunes that these systems can create? Will an AI be capable of weaving together a beautiful melodic story as full of depth and intrigue as any piece Mozart or Bach could whip up?

Probably not.

However, as Amper pointed out, there are plenty of use cases where music does not have to be the absolute best creatively – think studying music for example. In these cases, the limiting factor to growth and adoption is cost and scale – two elements that automated music has an undoubted competitive advantage in.

This, of course, should be taken in light of just how much of the music industry’s business model has been shifting over the past 20 years. Ever since early peer-to-peer file sharing services like Napster or LimeWire entered the scene in the late 90s, the music industry as a whole has been forced to shift focus from creating profit in the creation and distribution of digital media to how the artists are experienced. With album sales declining and music streaming services enabling consumers to “purchase” music with their ears, record labels and artists are being forced invest heavily in creating unique, engaging performances that cannot be digitally consumed. This combined with the fact that millenial shoping habits are shifting towards the consumption of experiences over hard goods en masse is providing a much needed increase in demand for these types of physical performances – enabling a shift in profit from music sales to music experiences.

The real question, of course, is what value do music customers (ordinary humans like you and myself) place on the act of creativity that goes into making a hit song? Will a machine ever be capable of drawing the same types of crowds as Taylor Swift or The Weeknd? The companies innovating in this space will ultimately be beholden to their customers, who will decide with their wallets over time. If there truly is enough space for two kinds of musical consumption, then perhaps true human creativity will prevail.

Creativity and the Human Condition

While music is an art form that touches us perhaps more emotionally and more frequently than many others within the liberal arts, there are many more fundamentally pivotal human activities that make up today’s knowledge economy. Writers, sports commentators, comedians, and actors – to name a few – all derive their value from harnessing their creativity. These kinds of professions do not have formal degrees in in universities because they have always been thought to be derived from elements of human nature that cannot be taught but rather embraced. As AI continues to permeate every part of our lives, society will need to make a stand on how we value the creative arts. Is it more important to lower the barrier for humans to drive acts of creativity or do we believe that it is inherently a process that can be modeled and encapsulated in software?

Time will tell.

Voice Wars: The Battle for Your (Audible) Intent

A Dispute Emerges

Amazon is on the cusp of launching the world’s first paid search platform for voice interactions – and digital commerce leaders across the world should be anxiously watching. While customer adoption of digital voice assistants – such as Amazon Echo/Dot or Google Home – has been relatively slow, this past holiday season put more than 8 million Alexa’s into the homes across the US. This means that everyday consumers are interacting with this new technology – asking questions, seeking advice, and generating rich intent signals that are ripe for digital advertisers to monetize. At 8 million daily users, the amount of voice interaction is roughly equivalent to an ecommerce site the size of Best Buy or Target.

Or course, not everyone is talking to their Alexa’s with the intent to purchase a new television set for the home, and in fact, there’s still a lot of work ahead to improve the experience around voice search; however, that hasn’t stopped Amazon innovators from exploring new types of ordering strategies, such as exclusive deals only available to Alexa owner. But the real question on everyone’s mind (at the digital leadership level) is how will this impact my business – in particular my organization’s ability to acquire paid traffic from high-intent, high-value search activity.

The Changing Battlefield

If we look at the paid search industry as a whole, it has really been just a history of one company’s complete and utter rise to dominance and control over the consumer’s quest for knowledge: Google. For context, Google’s paid search offering (i.e. – the ads that show up next to the links that you are looking for) brings in roughly $45 billion annually and wields an incredible 55% of total worldwide paid search revenue – a number that would likely be higher if it were not for the likes of emerging Chinese leaders like Baidu. It has risen to this position in part through its superior search experience but also – more importantly – the introduction and scaling of the paid search bidding mechanism. Without the work that Google and several other search innovators (GoTo, Overture, etc.), managing and optimizing web-scale search traffic would be just an interesting computer science problem rather than a cash cow.

Google’s paid search offerings allow it to monetize its traffic at scale and, in return, pour more R&D dollars back into improving the overall experience for its core users. None of this would be possible if consumers chose to conduct their search elsewhere – and it is in part because of the open web that keeps the Google giant innovating on its core search experience (moving to mobile in the past few years as well as investing in new digital products that may or may not succeed). Amazon’s move into paid voice search stands to threaten this monopolistic hold on the search advertising industry not only because they are well positioned to potentially create the next killer monetization format but also because they are likely to control the landscape for voice traffic altogether. How Amazon ultimately discovers how to monetize this traffic will shape the long-term evolution of voice-based search altogether as it will directly enable (or not enable) the pouring of R&D dollars back into the core voice experience.

A Digital War is Coming

As the world’s largest digital retailer, Amazon has a vested interest in understanding how to leverage any and all consumer intent signals to convince shoppers to purchase goods and services from one of its many digital channels. The rise in digital voice assistants presents a new landscape in which customers can express their intent – and as such as new opportunity for organizations that own that intent to monetize it.


Amazon is well-versed in maximizing digital marketing dollars to acquire and convert online shoppers. In 2015 alone, Amazon spent $2.8 billion on total digital marketing spend – making it the largest digital retailer by total spend (followed closely by HSN at number 2 and Wayfair at number 3). Out of this gargantuan allocation, almost $200 million was paid to Google alone for paid search marketing – making it one of the search giant’s largest individual customers by total ad spend. This relationship, however, is becoming rocky at best.


The Seattle giant has been steadily evolving its own brand around product search. In 2003, it created a dedicated product search R&D division named A9 that focused (and still does) specifically on developing and maintaining technologies designed to optimize consumer inquires around finding products that are right for them. And to-date, this group has contributed to a massive shift in consumer behavior around just how products are found and discovered online. Today, a whopping 55% of consumers say that they start their online product search on Amazon directly – not Google where market dynamics can let any digital retailer bid on the traffic.

Not only is Amazon gradually pulling paid search power away from Google through changing customer behavior, it has also backed up its efforts to monetize this traffic in ways beyond direct purchase activity through its own online paid search business. Amazon launched ClickRiver in 2006 as a division focused on monetizing internal product search traffic through the same paid search dollars that digital retailers are currently allocating to Google. To-date, that business has grown quite steadily – pulling in over $750 million in 2013 and likely surpassing $1 billion soon. To say that Amazon is tactically positioned to upset not just Google’s business but the entire arbitrage system that the rest of the world of digital retailers rely on is an understatement.

Who Will Win?

Unfortunately, it’s still too early to tell how this opportunity will play out because voice search is still in its infancy. Neither Amazon nor Google have released any stats regarding the breakdown of types of queries that are coming through their respective voice platforms – and realistically speaking product teams are likely still learning how to even classify different types of queries altogether as consumers learn how best leverage the technology that exists in their homes today. In the meantime, however, several core questions will have to be answered:

  • How will people use voice search differently from mobile or desktop?

  • How will targeting work?

  • What will the ad unit be?

Should I Be Concerned?

As a digital commerce leader, it is your job to plan for the unexpected and in-turn create and execute strategies that will maximize your organization’s market influence. Given that Amazon has not even publicly announced the details of their paid search platform, it is still too early to plan any specific changes to your own paid search spend, and in fact, the companies that will leverage it first are likely going to use experimental ad dollars. If your organization can afford to do this and you have the product management resources on your end to manage the experimentation, perhaps it might be a good idea; however, the vast majority of digital retailers are more likely better off letting early adopters pay for the hard lessons and product evolution that will make this channel viable – or not.

In the meantime, we can all look for core stats regarding the viability of the voice search business altogether – such as total number of daily users or queries. Also equally important is the percentage of total queries that are going to either Amazon or Google, because depending on who wins that battle will dictate if other digital retailers can even participate in this new ecosystem or not.