Amazon, Apple, Google and Microsoft are all in the race to develop the ultimate voice assistant but Chinese firms have the edge, finds a new EyeforTravel report

China is the ideal environment for developing and deploying voice technology, and this is propelling local players like Baidu and iFlytek to become world leaders, finds a new EyeforTravel report. Given the size of Chinese travel market, this is something that brands can no longer ignore.

One of the obvious reasons for more rapid adoption is the complexity of the Chinese alphabet. With thousands of individual characters, typing on a small screen is rather more difficult than for those using the 26 letters of the Latin alphabet. Chinese travellers are also more avid users of mobile devices than travellers in other markets, the report finds.

Other factors helping voice technologies to be heard loudly in China, is the speed at which words can be spoken. According to a joint study by Baidu, Stanford University and the University of Washington it is three times quicker to say English words than type, and 2.8 times faster in Mandarin. At the same time, the error rate in Mandarin is lower than it is in English.

In China, there is a favourable regulatory environment and government has prioritised research into emerging technologies like artificial intelligence

Chinese government support has also been a boon to local players; there is a favourable regulatory environment and government has prioritised research into emerging technologies like artificial intelligence. In addition, data can be collected, analysed and deployed, with minimal data security and privacy restrictions compared to those applied in the European Union and US. As engineers tackle the next challenge of getting AI to understand and respond to speech in a contextual framework, this could prove to be a major advantage as the quantity of data is crucial to this kind of machine learning.

Growing competition

Already, huge quantities of data are being generated by millions of Chinese consumers. To put it in perspective, Apple claims that Siri has a user base of around 375 million, likely making it the most used personal assistant outside of China. But iFlytek’s, a little-known Chinese firm that leads the way in voice technologies, has developed ‘Input’, an app that applies deep learning in a number of fields including speech recognition, natural-language processing, machine translation, and data mining. Established in 1999, iFlytek claims to have over 700 million end users and over 70% of the Chinese voice market. Even if this is exaggerated – media reports suggest around 500 million regular iFlytek users – that is still an impressive number.

Baidu is iFlytek’s main competitor having poured around $3bn into AI research and development between 2015 and 2017. In November 2016, Baidu noted that the daily requests for speech recognition had grown from 5 million in 2013 to 140 million, and 200 million for speech synthesis. Says the report: “Baidu has brought in talent from outside China, including a team in Silicon Valley, and has periodically hired thousands of freelancers to provide it with language data to train systems”.

Crucially, unlike Apple, both companies have established an ecosystem of companies, which use their software, enabling them to gather more data and improve accuracy. iFlytek and Baidu claim that already thousands of companies have developed products using their voice technologies.

So the game is getting pretty competitive, and with Samsung pushing its Bixby voice products in the second half of 2017, it’s only going to get more so.

So can travel brands ignore the rise of voice tech in China? The short answer is no.

For more on voice technology and the impact on the travel industry, click here to download the complete report for free.

EyeforTravel Europe 2018

June 2018, London

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