Smart home devices are all the rage, with tens of millions sold this Christmas and the global market expected to top 225 million units by 2020.
Adoption by consumers has been rapid, but despite nearly 70 years of experimentation, the appeal of voice technology for businesses has been lukewarm.
This may be about to change as artificial intelligence (AI) advances, propelled by some of the biggest names in accounting software and combined with the greater availability of cloud storage.
The trend is the latest to claim it will put an end to mundane data entry tasks and save countless cash flow and invoicing hours, but does this scan? Is speech technology finally finding its voice in accountancy?
“Alexa, who hasn’t paid me this month?”
“How voice and AI are being applied to the accounting world is very interesting,” said Chris Downing, director of product management, accounting, at Sage. “The profession has never been so busy, so in the next couple of years the focus will be on how accountants become more productive, reduce administration and create a deeper relationship with their clients.”
Asking a device which clients have or have not submitted tax returns, to begin mileage claims or draw up invoices are just a handful of the time-saving solutions Sage and Intuit are currently working on.
Both firms told AccountingWEB that voice was a huge part of future plans to streamline internal processes and help accountants and businesses increase productivity.
“The time-saving solution of asking a device which clients have or have not submitted their tax returns is just one example of a potentially enormous time-saving action,” said Downing. “You don’t have to look at lists, don’t have to log into HMRC, the whole point is being able to lift information from other sources by asking questions.”
Last year, Intuit launched QuickBooks Assistant in the UK, a voice and chatbot that allows customers to get almost immediate answers on some of the most common questions they have.
“These are questions small businesses have had for years, but they were clicking into reports,” said Shaun Shirazian, Intuit head of product, Europe. “It was taking a lot of time and answers may be hard to find or not always be clear. We used voice as a new way to save time by quickly answering those key questions.”
Since its global launch, QuickBooks Assistant has responded to around 1.5 million questions, the company said – a figure which goes some way to arguing there is a real use-case for voice technology in business.
It has not always been this way, with voice technology rivalling Virtual Reality as a historic novelty software never quite gaining acceptance.
A brief history of voice
AccountingWEB dug up an article from 2001 in which Baker Tilly said eight of its accountants were taking part in a £100,000 trial of voice recognition software to create and write documents.
The technology itself, Dragon's NaturallySpeaking, dates back to a speech-understanding program laid out by the company’s founder, Dr James Baker, in 1982. It was eventually released in 1997.
Voice technology goes back even further, to the early 1960s, when IBM developed and demonstrated Shoebox, an experimental machine that performed arithmetic on voice command.
The device, a forerunner to today’s smart speakers, recognised and responded to 16 spoken words, including the ten digits from “zero”’ through to “nine”. When a number and command words such as “plus”, “minus” and "total" were spoken, Shoebox instructed an adding machine to calculate and print answers to simple arithmetic problems.
Shoebox was operated by speaking into a microphone, which converted voice sounds into electrical impulses.
It did not catch on immediately, but several decades later the pervasion of voice into business is clear. In 2007, Ford launched Sync, a communications and entertainment system that let users make phone calls and control music.
The car company predicts that “nearly 90% of all new vehicles will have [voice recognition] on-board by 2022”.
Capital One has developed apps for Alexa and Cortana, and Santander allows payments via voice in its iPhone app. UBS wealth management clients in Europe can ask Alexa for the chief investment officer’s answers to financial and economic questions.
US security start-up Pindrop commissioned research that found that three-quarters of all businesses are planning to invest in customer-facing voice systems based on Cortana, Google Assistant and Alexa. Smaller but significant percentages are investing in similar systems based on IBM's Watson, Apple's Siri and Samsung's Bixby.
Voice shopping on Alexa alone could top $5bn (£3.85bn) per year in revenue by 2020, according to RBC Capital Markets. Global advertising spend on voice assistants, almost non-existent in 2018, will reach $19bn (£14.62bn) by 2022, nearly the size of the current magazine advertisement business, according to Juniper Research.
Shoebox’s legacy at IBM is Watson Assistant, a white-label tool for enterprises to build voice-activated virtual assistants using their own datasets. IBM said it is preferable to using Alexa for Business because it doesn't give the data and control to Amazon, or to IBM.
There are also firms that want to leverage the voice data they capture to drive efficiencies and search for ways to help customers, and the ability to do this has been limited until now by the size of voice files and how they are compressed.
“There are very few businesses at the moment that leverage their voice estates or derive any kind of intelligence or marketing/data-driven exercise of value,” said Germán Soto Sanchez, president of Cloud9 Technologies, a cloud-based communications and analytics platform.
Sanchez said his firm, traditionally active in trader voice monitoring surveillance, had been taking queries from the accounting, tax and audit worlds.
“Most interactions have been around secure and sensitive deal-closing calls, or calls where content is discussed that the firms want to memorialise for current or future reporting purposes,” he said.
He said he also expects data to start flowing more freely between businesses and their service providers.
“I think the market still finds voice, an element of what we do every day, to be the great unknown. We’ll definitely see more high-value, better solutions being rolled out across multiple organisations,” he said.
Accounting world learns “it’s good to talk”
Another challenge which has hindered voice recognition software in the past is how it learns, with multiple factors affecting each individual system.
“It won’t work straight out of the box; it has to be voice trained, understand idiosyncrasies of a voice, pronunciations, if they have a strong accent, or eliminating background noise,” said Downing.
This is what AI voice surveillance technology experts Behavox have dubbed ‘the cocktail party problem’, where human operators listening to a noisy environment have the advantage over a machine, as they can pick out context and separate voices.
Sage is investing heavily in research and development, analytics and data scientists, aiming to crack this and other problems. It created Pegg, a dedicated AI chatbot for accounting, and is now working with the likes of Amazon’s voice teams, using Alexa to source expense reports and understand cash flow.
“In the last five years we have seen movement, and that is down to the change in how businesses and accountants are using information and where that information is stored,” said Downing. “No longer is data locked away on an unconnected server; it is readily available in the cloud. So you can use all the power, whether from an Amazon, Microsoft or Sage server, and the ability to interpret trillions of information points allows you to understand what it means and create sense from it.”
It is early days, even with the current hype around the consumer adoption the devices are limited, said Shirazian, but Intuit is encouraged by the speed at which things are moving.
“It would be wonderful to see voice requests becoming second nature for accountants and business owners and for them to know that their software is there to help,” Shirazian said. “An accountant or small business shouldn’t be spending so much time manually entering data into a product. We should be able to seamlessly bring that in, either through automation, voice or touch display, and we’re constantly finding new ways of doing it.”
The theme from a lot of companies, he said, is in the age of AI and smart devices there still needs to be a human element.
“That is something we believe in strongly,” said Shirazian. “Yes we can help small business and accountants get more targeted insights about their business but it doesn’t replace having an accountant, having that human element.”
He said voice also has a part to play in compliance, especially around Making Tax Digital. “You can put your head in the sand and say you don’t want to change, but it’s going to happen,” he said. “Our stance is to embrace the change as adopting digital can provide a positive impact to our customers’ lives so they don’t have to worry about the mundane stuff and they can focus on growing their business.”