Voice Assistants in the Boardroom: Benefits & Deficits

Nicholas J Price

Tech companies are racing each other to develop new products and digital solutions for nearly every industry. Just when we think we’ve seen it all, we find that technology can do even more. Tech companies continue to find ways to help us do tasks faster, easier and more accurately. Much of the focus is on artificial intelligence and machine learning. Tech experts are exploring how to expand their use. Currently, tech giants are looking beyond how advanced technologies can help businesspeople, salespeople, executives and board directors streamline and automate their processes.

Advanced technologies afford benefits for every walk of life. Of course, we know that great benefits come with some degree of risks. Before voice assistants become commonplace in boardrooms across America, it makes sense to consider the risks they bring and weigh them against the deficits.

New Advanced Technology for Sales Groups

Salesforce recently introduced advanced technology in the form of voice assistants for salespeople. The voice interface for its customer relationship management software affords people working in sales jobs the opportunity to talk through a number of common sales tasks. Salesforce offers the example of a salesperson who wants to update notes after a sales meeting. The software allows them to do that without having to run back to their laptop or desktop. All they have to do is simply speak their notes into an application, which they can do from their phone, a smart speaker or a mic in their car.

Salesforce launched these features of their voice platform at the Dreamforce mega-convention in San Francisco. The software is much like Alexa, in that it can run on a range of electronic devices, including Amazon Echo. The software is highly customizable. It lets users connect certain conversations with the software for certain tasks. For example, a sales executive could ask the software to announce quarterly sales figures for each salesperson for the most recent quarter. In another use, salespeople could ask for refresher information about a client while they’re on their way to meet them. The questions would be different, depending on whether a user is a CEO, salesperson or call center representative.

What Are the Benefits of Voice Assistants in the Boardroom?

Some of the benefits of voice assistants are obvious. They’re convenient and they save time. Instead of having to get some information ahead of time, a board chair could simply ask the software to provide it in real time, in front of everyone right in the meeting where everyone hears it at the same time. Voice assistants are a boon for multi-taskers who get frustrated with rote tasks. Convenience is always a nice benefit. The voice assistant goes where the user goes. A salesperson can update notes while they are on the way out the door to grab lunch.

What Are the Deficits of Voice Assistants in the Boardroom?

To consider the deficits of voice assistant software, you need to go behind the scenes and learn how things work on the back end. What you’re likely to find is hundreds of humans assisting the voice assistants. It’s a known fact that humans have been listening to Cortana and Skype recordings for some time.

Most recently, Google and Apple have ceased using human labor to aid artificial intelligence apps. Amazon, Samsung and Microsoft continue to use human labor to help educate the artificial intelligence brains. Most companies use outside contractors to supply human talent to manually transcribe voice interactions from all over the world. Human help in this facet doesn’t get paid well, which calls into even more question about how secure a company’s information is, especially when it comes to protecting confidential information, trade secrets and intellectual property.

Motherboard admits getting ahold of leaked documents that prove that human contractors are required to transcribe the contents of Skype calls with the intention of improving the automated interpretation of human speech for their translation services. Human operators have the task of choosing the best of machine-generated translations or providing a better version. Some people incorrectly assume that intelligent algorithms are doing this work.

The contractor for Microsoft’s Cortana trains staff on how to classify data and punctuation styles with an expectation of 200 pieces of data per hour, for which they’re paid around $15 per hour plus bonuses. Microsoft explains to Motherboard that they use disclosures to let customers know that they use customer content from Cortana and Skype Translator to improve their products and that they use third-party services. Microsoft further explains that they take steps with anonymity to protect people’s privacy.

It’s true that taking steps to de-identify consumer data reduces the risk of leaking personal data. On the other hand, businesses have to consider the unique risks that boardroom conversations pose if they were leaked. Any mention of a product name, key product details, competitive strategies or mentions of specific types of intellectual property could be overheard and leaked, posing a dangerous cyber threat.

Technological Advancements Advance Cyber Risks

Newer, more extensively featured products and applications are certain to come to market to provide business tools that make business more productive and efficient. For example, Amazon introduced Alexa for Business that allows businesspeople to tailor voice dialogues to assist them with everyday tasks like locating other individuals within the company or getting instructions on procedures.

As with anything new, corporations must use large doses of caution any time they bring in new technologies. As the competition continues to ramp up around using voice assistants for boardroom purposes and other business purposes, boards and executives would be wise to ask many questions about confidentiality, cybersecurity and cyber risks. In addition, it’s prudent to ask if humans are working behind the scenes in tandem or in addition to artificial intelligence and machine learning programs.

As technology giants continue to explore and develop business-use electronic applications, companies that offer voice recognition will also have to consider how to contain confidential information within a platform similar to what Diligent Corporation provides for its board portal customers.

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Nicholas J. Price
Nicholas J. Price is a former Manager at Diligent. He has worked extensively in the governance space, particularly on the key governance technologies that can support leadership with the visibility, data and operating capabilities for more effective decision-making.