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Overview from TED

From Siri to Alexa to Google, virtual assistants already permeate our lives. What will the next generation of these digital helpers look and sound like? Customer experience professional Karen Lellouche Tordjman gives us a glimpse of where they're headed - and breaks down the two key challenges engineers need to crack in order to usher in a new age of truly smart voice assistants.

"What is thrilling is the prospect of having a companion that would cater specifically to my needs and requests. Just imagine, it could do things, like using my heart rate to tweak my Starbucks order to reduce caffeine."

White Brick Wall
Karen Lellouche Tordjman

Customer Experience Pro

Karen Lellouche Tordjman is a global leader on customer experience and a BHI fellow on the future of customer interactions. She works with clients to reinvent their customer experience and define which channels will be critical in the future.



Most homes have smart assistants. We use them for basic things like asking about the weather, adding to a shopping list or playing music. That is, if they can understand our accent or how fast we speak.

Karen Lellouche Tordjman has some fascinating insights on how tech companies are working to upgrade these virtual assistants with an ambition for them to play a much bigger role in our lives.

This prospect raises some important questions: Are we ready for smart assistants to converge on multiple items – and have access to increasing amounts of our data? Do we trust the people making the algorithms? And are we, and the companies we use on a regular basis, ready for this transition?

I admit, I find it exciting to think how streamlined our lives could be, everything organised in one place, with different smart assistants able to interact with each other to coordinate. Amazon, Google, Apple and Samsung are constantly upgrading their smart assistants, and something that seemed revolutionary a few years ago has already become staple in many homes. I expect we will take to the new technologies with ease, once a few key factors get figured out.


Life for most of us involves a lot of admin and organising, especially those of us with children. Imagine if we could each have a smart assistant to help lighten the load – a helper attuned to our needs who can organise our life admin. Lellouche Trodjman is a working mum who can’t wait for these benefits:

“I would love to stop doing Google searches, wasting time doing Amazon scrolling, budget calculation or optimising my calendar. What is thrilling is the prospect of having a companion that would cater specifically to my needs and requests. Just imagine, it could do things like using my heart rate to tweak my Starbucks order to reduce caffeine. It could take into account my lunch and the number of steps I've walked to tailor a workout for me. It could even align with my friend's smart assistant to craft evening plans that would fit everyone's budget, calendars and locations.”

Think of all the time that could be saved and better spent.

But the technology isn’t quite there, as Lellouche Tordjman elaborates:

“There are two technological bricks that are critical to make this happen that are still missing. One is voice. These tools must be able to understand everything we say. And clearly, this is not the case today.”

18 million people have watched WIRED’s ‘8 People Test Their Accents on Siri, Echo and Google Home’. It is funny to see this tech and the participants struggle to communicate simple things.

It is less amusing when you are repeating yourself to a device again and again, to the point that googling the traditional way would have been faster and easier. I’ve made a video on how voice recognition works, and its challenges. Tackling some of these issues will be anything but straightforward, as Lellouche Tordjman explains:

“Actually, understanding human language is difficult. It's as much about the context as it is about the words themselves. And think about the accents or background noise. It's already very difficult for Americans to understand French people speaking English.”

The aim is for smart assistants to understand long, complex requests, even from a distance with background noise, and to detect emotions and mimic them. This refining will take time, but with large-scale research investment committed, you can bet it will be on its way soon enough. 

As Lellouche Tordjman detailed:

“In 2018, Google launched an investment program for start-ups that would work with their Google Home suites. And since then, they have invested in over 15 companies. Amazon has 10,000 employees working on Alexa voice technologies. So they will eventually crack the voice issues.”

The second challenge, she states, is the harder one:

“Now, the second challenge and the biggest, in my opinion, revolves around the breadth of recommendations provided. What will be their range of actions? Will they remain limited to very specific tasks, or will they be able to become a true companion across your day to which you can ask whatever you want, whatever you need? For example, taking notes in a meeting or reordering milk or even mental health coaching. Will they be able to provide you recommendations across product categories?”

Tech companies want to keep us as customers. Will they be prepared for their voice assistants to be used to make purchases from rival companies? There is an obvious disincentive here for companies to develop algorithms that are compatible with the competition and don’t favour their own profit margins.

“Every business in the future will need to accelerate drastically on data and algorithm, on voice-enabled interactions. And also, they will need to be entrusted by consumers to provide recommendations.”

This leads to her three imperatives: data, tech and trust.


“Obviously, this scenario could easily lean towards the scary. This is why there needs to be regulation in place. All users, all consumers, should always remain in full control of data they share and on which type of recommendations they agree to get or not to get.”

People are now increasingly concerned about the security of their personal data and how it is being used. As Jennifer Zhu Scott’s talk Why You Should Get Paid For Your Data details, data is a valuable commodity.  Many people struggle to trust the harvesting of data by big companies, and trust in big tech companies generally is falling too.

The type of smart assistant Lellouche Tordjman is suggesting would hold a lot of data. Can we trust that this data will be used in the best interests of the individual, rather than for the benefit of a tech company?

The UK government’s independent advisory body, the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation, wrote a report in 2019 on the ethics and concerns of the data collection by smart speakers and voice assistants, concluding:

“Improved communication would enable consumers to make more informed choices and consider the trade-offs they are prepared to make, helping to address issues of trust. Recent scandals exposing the way data has been used and shared should serve as a wake-up call for platforms to act with more transparency and be proactive in explaining what data they are collecting and what is being done with it. There is a risk that society is moving towards a state where the devices are commonplace, but key questions around the data they collect and how it is used remain unanswered.”

These are important issues to address, but they go much broader than just the use of voice-activated smart assistants and will be part of the debate for as long as we have technology and data in our lives.

On that basis, I’m inclined to agree with Lellouche Tordjman that the growing presence of increasingly sophisticated smart assistants in our everyday lives now feels like a question of ‘when’ rather than ‘if’:

“Today, can you live without your smartphone? I assume not, right? In a few years from now, your smart assistant will be a convenient, powerful, reliable helper essential in your day-to-day life. So, you won't be able to live without it. And unlike your smartphones, it will be embedded in every device around you. Your smartphone itself, of course, but also your car, the mirrors, your fridge, your glasses and who knows what other device in the future. So, are you ready for a smarter life?”

Hey Siri, it’s a ‘yes’ from me. How about you?

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