Innovation is often borne out of crisis.

As COVID-19 threatens the global populace, tests the capacity of global, national and local medical systems, and severely endangers the lives of front-line healthcare workers, we’re starting to see many innovative approaches to stemming the risk of infection, with voice and AI at the forefront. 

Scott Galloway, a Clinical Marketing Professor at New York University, recently said of COVID-19, “Things won’t change as much as they will accelerate. While other crises reshaped the future, COVID-19 is just making the future happen faster.”

That thinking is ringing true in many instances thus far, from the further digitization of retail to the scaling of a remote global workforce. And all signs point to COVID-19 being an accelerant of the adoption rate of voice technology, on both the enterprise side and for consumers. 

With a steady growing rate of voice-enabled devices being sold per capita, voice technology was already poised to proliferate the market prior to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Voice technology has been placed on a fast track as consumers increasingly stay home and search for more ways to stay entertained and healthcare workers on the frontlines continue to seek protection and new ways to fight the virus. 

In many ways, China has been at the forefront of voice technology adoption, and never more so than during the coronavirus crisis.

On the medical front, we’ve seen a range of technologies expedite the tracking, testing, and treating processes. China has a voice robot that can make 200 calls within five minutes (as compared to two to three hours manually) to collect and check personal information such as identity, health condition, whereabouts (current and recent past). The voice bot is able to discern when users should stay home and prescribe them instructions, advice and support resources while forwarding their health status data to healthcare providers. 

In public shared spaces outside of hospitals, the tech industry, and government have turned their attention to decreasing tactile transmission and voice tech is on the frontlines. Hangzhou based XIOLIFT works towards decreasing touch-transmission of germs from surfaces, such as elevator buttons, by experimenting with voice-activated elevators. 

Meanwhile, for entertainment and education purposes, big tech companies such as Baidu and Xiaomi have donated thousands of smart speaker devices for the purposes of voice-first entertainment and educational content, as hundreds of parents now find themselves acting as full-time caregivers, employees, and homeschool teachers. 

As working from home becomes part of the new normal, so might the increased usage of smart speaker devices, whether for entertainment, education, or boosting productivity.

It is no longer a matter of “if” but “when” we will begin to see these new normals sprout up everywhere. Voice and AI technologies are poised to be part of the solutions that help shape that new normal.  

In the past, we have seen voice devices deployed in hotel and hospital rooms alike. Pre-COVID 19, these were enterprise-sized solutions to alleviate pressure for overworked nurses and hotel staff members. At their core, these experiences were built to maximize efficiency by offloading non-essential guest/patient requests to free up time for medical care providers and guest services staff to attend to higher priority requests and needs. In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic “nonessential” has a new meaning. In past hospital and hotel pilots, smaller requests limited overburdening employees, however, in the face of COVID-19 it’s impossible to ignore that those voice assistants also limited non-essential physical contact while simultaneously improving efficiencies. There was already a joint pilot program to run Aiva, a healthcare specific voice assistant, being run on both Google Assistant and Alexa devices at hospitals in New York, Los Angeles, and Boston. In light of the pandemic, Amazon is fueling the steepening of the adoption curve with a donation of $5M worth of devices. The devices will be allocated to hospitals, schools, and community-oriented programs across New York, San Francisco, Seattle, Houston, and Italy. 

Hospitals that hadn’t yet begun implementing voice technology are being catalyzed into investing in alternative conversational strategies, such as chatbots, which often lay the foundation for eventual progression into voice.

One such example is Grace, the chatbot quickly created and deployed by Providence Health Systems, that is specific to COVID-19. Similar to the voice bot used in China, the Grace chatbot is able to diagnose patients, administer guidance on self-isolation protocols, and provide instructions for at-home care of non-critical patients. The chatbot helps ease the burden on the already overextended healthcare workers and hospital administrative staff. 

As voice continues to proliferate into hospital rooms, it may not be long before it begins to overtake chatbots as the primary touchpoint for diagnostics and FAQs. The evolution from traditional channels and chatbots to voice-driven diagnosis, that is already well underway in the Chinese healthcare system, is in the early stages of being piloted in the US. Carnegie Mellon University’s Voca.ai, is in the process of building out Corona Voice Detect. At the moment, they are requesting vocal recordings of healthy and COVID-19 diagnosed individuals to help with machine learning. The technology was created using a combination of recently developed AI and voice forensic technologies. 

Understanding that the underlying fear and anxiety around disease transmission will remain in society long after the shelter-at-home measures have been lifted will be key.

Up until now, some brands have been asking “Why voice?” – an entirely justified question when considering the resources needed to invest in any new form of technology. But, when this pandemic is over voice technology is likely to experience what is widely recognized as the “Amazon-effect.” When Amazon Prime came to the market in 2005 and offered 2-day shipping, as opposed to the then standard “5 to 7 business days” it revolutionized consumer behavior. So much so, that when they shopped at other e-tailer websites long shipping waits became a significant contributor to cart abandonment rates. Now 48% of ecommerce deliveries in the US are made within 2-3 days, because consumers began asking “Why can’t I get this sooner?”

Companies that are currently investing in voice technology, and those that already have been, will likely see an increase in ROI during and post-pandemic. Because unlike shipping, the request for voice-enabled technology will be fueled by the instinct of self-preservation and staying healthy. Once people experience the first elevator they can speak to, the first vending machine they can order from, the first iPad they can sign in with, without having to touch any buttons or screens, it will be the consumers pushing forward the new normal. The question won’t be coming from brands and it won’t be “Why Voice?”. The questions will be coming from the consumers and they’ll be asking “Why can’t I just use my voice for this?”