Alexa debuted on select Windows 10 laptops earlier this year – built into a range of newly launched HP, Asus, Acer and Lenovo notebooks – and is now available for download on all compatible devices.
There are no PC-specific controls for Alexa at this point, but Amazon said it plans to add “PC-specific capabilities” early in 2019.
Moving beyond managing entertainment and smart home apps, Alexa’s presence on Windows 10 is aimed at work productivity and serves to highlight the AI assistant’s rise in office environments – much as the iPhone in 2007 moved quickly from individual users to become a mainstay of the workforce.
There are now more that 25,000 Alexa skills available, including a growing list targeted specifically at business users.
Amazon is also forging deals with corporate partners. A range of companies, including Salesforce, SAP SuccessFactors, Concur, Ring Central and ServiceNow, all plan to integrate their applications with Alexa for Business – the service launched last year to help companies manage large numbers of Alexa devices in the workplace.
Amazon also recently announced that Alexa for Business has been opened up to third party device manufacturers in a bid to expand the use of the AI assistant in existing office hardware.
Are companies ready for Alexa?
The prospect of virtual assistants in the office is generally being welcomed by senior IT leaders.
“We see virtual assistants as inevitable in the workplace,” said Joel Jacobs, vice president, CIO and CSO at MITRE Corporation in Bedford, Mass. “Home experience will set the expectation for voice interaction, inquiry, and control of other [IoT] devices. I think that soon people will expect that if they can have these capabilities at home, why not the office?”
“Intelligent assistants have already proven they can be of good use today and see potential for greater use tomorrow,” said Jim Rinaldi, CIO and director for IT at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
He said voice interfaces can save time compared with keyboard inputs and allow multitasking in a more convenient way. “I envision having intelligent assistants access the various dashboards I have to answer questions [rather than] having to access the dashboard every time I need information with a computer in front of me.”
Tom Cullen, CIO at Driscoll’s, the $3.5 billion supplier of fresh berries, envisioned an Alexa-type device handling user self-service requests – as opposed to logging a traditional help desk ticket for issues such as password changes – or being used to enable a workflow typically dependent on another staff member.
Virtual assistants could also be “leveraged for application support-type requests that a quick answer or direction on where to go for more info could be helpful,” he said.
Tom Anfuso, senior vice president and CIO at National Life Group, said the company, based in Montpelier, Vt., prototyped a simple proof-of-concept Alexa skill for its insurance agents last year.
“We will likely continue working with Alexa in the context of our innovation R&D program this year,” he said. Although there is no firm plan at the moment to go beyond the concept, Anfuso said the company is “generally bullish on the growing Alexa ecosystem.”
IPG Mediabrands, the media arm of New York-based advertising firm Interpublic Group of Companies, has been exploring Alexa for Business integration in its organization, said Frank Ribitch, senior vice president, technology, for the Americas.
“We have seen the benefits that virtual assistants like Alexa can bring to an individual, now we’re looking to exploit those capabilities to help enable existing conference room technology within our offices,” he said. “In my perfect world, we would be able to walk into a conference room, ask Alexa to start their video conference, and Alexa begins to work her magic.”
Despite numerous advances in video conferencing technology, a video conference call often requires an IT person to be on hand to ensure everything is set up and working properly, he said. “I’d love to be able to remove my staff from these meetings, and have them focusing on other, more pressing issues.”
There are still challenges to overcome, however, with the main one being protection of sensitive data. Said Cullen: “The main drawback [for virtual assistants] is security.
“The reason I don’t have one in my house is that it is always listening and you don’t really know where all of the data is going and what is being done with it,” he said.
Ribitch agreed: “Like many others, we have concerns about a device that’s always on and always listening.
“Over the past several months, our CISO and our Legal/Privacy teams have been drafting an internal policy to address IoT devices. We are taking a multiclass approach with IoT devices to help better define their capabilities, and more importantly, how to secure them on our network while also addressing privacy related concerns. We hope to have the final policies completed later this quarter.”
Jacobs also questioned where data created in virtual assistant interactions would reside. “For example, if the voice interpretation is ‘in the cloud,’ does that mean that the voice track and transcription is being stored by the service provider? If so, how can they be used?”
“I don’t see major drawbacks, but there will always be concerns regarding privacy and security that need to be designed upfront and not as a reaction,” said the JPL’s Rinaldi.
The inherent challenges facing the introduction of voice-activated smart assistants in some ways mirrors the influx of smartphones in work environments over the past decade. That revolution forced IT admins to deal with new data security headaches brought about by consumer devices showing up on corporate networks – and eventually led to the arrival of BYOD policies, along with an entirely new ecosystem devoting to managing devices and networks.