Can Alexa and Other Digital Assistants Conquer Businesses?

Digital assistants such as Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri are becoming more ubiquitous in the consumer space, but businesses remain a largely untapped (and tempting) target for the technology.

Of course, most businesses simply don’t have a use case for a “smart speaker” or similar device that can play music on demand or answer simple questions about the weather. Amazon is attempting to change things, though, with business-centric functionality for Alexa.

Alexa for Business Blueprints will allow employees to develop private, business-specific Alexa “skills” (i.e., the commands or requests you speak to an Alexa-enabled device). Moreover, Amazon recognizes that already-overstretched tech pros don’t have time to build Alexa skills for their organization while managing their other asks, and so Blueprints is supposedly “no code.”

Here’s how it works, according to Amazon: The organization’s sysadmin (or whatever tech pro is responsible for infrastructure) sends a link to the employee who wants to build a skill; that link directs the employee to the “Alexa Skill Blueprints Website,” where they can piece together their skill, test it, and then publish it (pending sysadmin or other tech pro approval, of course).

The Blueprints Website includes a category titled “Business Q&A,” which allows employees to create custom questions and answers, and an “Onboard Guide.” But true integration with businesses (“Alexa, book me into New York Conference Room 1 at 2 P.M.”) will hinge on partnerships with companies such as Cisco who provide crucial infrastructure components; and on that front, Amazon has already been laying its groundwork.

Amazon also has significant competition in this realm. For example, Microsoft already introduced business-specific skills for Cortana, its own digital assistant. The Cortana Skills Kit for Enterprise, powered by Microsoft’s Azure cloud platform, remains in closed beta, but the potential is enormous when you consider the number of offices that run Windows (which remains Cortana’s main end-user point). It’s also an open question whether business-y Cortana will move to “no code” like Alexa.

Google has also positioned its own digital helper, Assistant, as useful for businesses, but more in the context of answering customers’ questions. Google’s other artificial intelligence (A.I.) work, such as Duplex, could end up serving in help-desk and customer service capacities (potentially replacing humans in the process).

Of course, many businesses will worry about privacy and security in the context of digital assistants. It’s not only a matter of spoken questions and answers (and the data that supports them) routing through the datacenters of an Amazon or Google; executives might be concerned that anyone could ask a device a question and receive information they’re not authorized to hear.

And that’s before you tackle the still-thorny issue of word recognition—it’s difficult enough sometimes to get Alexa or Cortana to understand a straightforward music request, so imagine asking one of those platforms to explain how to route an invoice through a particular payment system. Many firms may demand more sophisticated software before they jump onboard—especially if their employees are going to be able to build features or skills with no coding.