Thursday, 1 February 2018

Are Amazon, Apple, Google and Microsoft falling behind Chinese voice tech?

China is a crucible for the spread of voice technologies and domestic companies might be leading the world currently in this field says EyeforTravel’s new free report into voice

Unique dynamics make China a perfect laboratory for developing and deploying voice technologies. This is propelling local players, principally Baidu and iFlytek, to become world leaders finds EyeforTravel’s new Can Voice Change the Way We Travel? report.

China is likely to become the key market for voice technologies and one in which travel brands need to be paying attention due to a number of reasons. Firstly, is the Chinese language, which has thousands of individual characters rather than a conventional alphabet. This makes typing a challenge, particularly on the smaller screen of a smartphone, creating a clear need that voice can solve. Furthermore, Chinese travellers are far more mobile focused than travellers in other markets according to EyeforTravel’s Chinese Travel Consumer report.

Progress in voice technologies means that voice technology is already the most convenient way for Mandarin speakers to operate their smartphones. A joint Baidu, Stanford University and University of Washington study from 2016 found it was three times quicker to say English words than type, and 2.8 times faster with Mandarin, while the rate of mistakes was a fifth lower using English and almost two-thirds lower with Mandarin.

This creates the demand for voice to flourish in the Chinese market, but local players have further advantages of a supportive Chinese government that has made AI a core focus and a more amenable regulatory environment for this field of research. Data that can be collected, analyzed and deployed with far fewer legal data security and privacy restrictions than in the EU or the US. This could be key, as the quantity of data is key in this kind of machine learning, especially as engineers tackle the next challenge of getting AI to understand and respond to speech in a contextual framework. 

That data is already being generated by millions of Chinese consumers. Whilst Apple claims Siri has a userbase of around 375 million, likely making it the most used personal assistant outside of China, China’s leading player at the moment iFLYTEK claims more than 700 million end users, which they believe gives them more than 70% of the Chinese voice market. Media reports more widely quote a figure of around 500 million regular users, still a vast figure.

iFLYTEK’s main competitor in China Baidu is hot on their heels, and claims prodigious growth as a result of pouring around USD3 into AI research from 2015 to 2017. In a November 2016 release, they noted that that “the daily requests for speech recognition grew from 5 million in 2013 to 140 million this year, and the number of daily requests for speech synthesis stands today at 200 million.”

Crucially, both companies have also been able to establish an ecosystem of various players who depend on their software, unlike Apple and Siri. This enables them to extend the reach of their rising voice empires and gather more data to further improve accuracy. Both companies claim that thousands of companies have already developed products from their voice technologies.

So, the big tech players in the West have plenty to feel anxious about given the progress of their Chinese counterparts and the scene is only going to get more crowded as Samsung started to push its Bixby voice products in the second half of 2017.

Therefore, if there is one key market that travel brands need to keep an eye on in relation to vice technology developments, it is China. The already deep penetration of advanced technologies, alongside unique market dynamics and a language particularly well suited to voice applications seems likely to make the country the forefront for this new way of engaging with the digital world.

For more on the topic of voice and its impact on the travel industry, click here to download the complete report for free.