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Linux Foundation initiative advocates open standards for voice assistants

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Organizations are beginning to develop, design, and manage their own AI-powered voice assistant systems independent of platforms such as Siri and Alexa. The transition is being driven by the desire to manage the entirety of the user experience and integrate voice assistance into multiple business processes and brand environments, from call centers to stores. In a recent survey of 500 IT and business decision-makers in the U.S., France, Germany, and the U.K., 28% of respondents said they were using voice technologies and 84% expect to be using them in the next year.

To support the evolution, the Linux Foundation today launched the Open Voice Network (OVN), an alliance advocating for the adoption of open standards across voice assistant apps in automobiles, smartphones, smart home devices, and more. With founding members Target, Schwarz Gruppe, Wegmans Food Markets, Microsoft, Veritone, Deutsche Telekom, and others, the OVN’s goal — much like Amazon’s Voice Interoperability Initiative — is to standardize the development and use of voice assistant systems and conversational agents that use technologies including automatic speech recognition, natural language processing, advanced dialog management, and machine learning.

The OVN emerged from research conducted between 2016 and 2018 on the impact of voice assistance on retail, consumer goods, and marketing industries by MIT’s Auto-ID Laboratory, Capgemini, and Intel. It was first announced as the Open Voice Initiative in 2019, but expanded significantly as the COVID-19 pandemic spurred enterprises to embrace digital transformation.

“Voice is expected to be a primary interface to the digital world, connecting users to billions of sites, smart environments and AI bots … Key to enabling enterprise adoption of these capabilities and consumer comfort and familiarity is the implementation of open standards,” Mike Dolan, SVP and general manager of projects at the Linux Foundation, said in a statement. “The potential impact of voice on industries including commerce, transportation, healthcare, and entertainment is staggering and we’re excited to bring it under the open governance model of the Linux foundation to grow the community and pave a way forward.”

Standards development

The OVN will focus specifically on standards development, including research and recommendations toward global standards to engender user choice, inclusivity, and trust. It’ll also work to identify and share conversational AI technologies, with best practices both horizontal and specific to vertical industries, serving as a source of insight for voice assistance. Lastly, OVN will collaborate with and through existing industry associations on regulatory and legislative issues including those of data privacy.

Ali Dalloul, GM at Microsoft’s Azure AI division, notes that as voice becomes a primary interface going forward, the result will be a hybrid ecosystem of general-purpose platforms and independent voice assistants that calls for interoperability. OVN’s mission is supporting this transition with industry guidance on the voice-specific protection of user privacy and data security.

“To speak is human, and voice is rapidly becoming the primary interaction modality between users and their devices and services at home and work,” Dalloul said in a statement. “The more devices and services can interact openly and safely with one another, the more value we unlock for consumers and businesses across a wide spectrum of use cases, such as conversational AI for customer service and commerce.”

Membership to the OVN includes a commitment of resources in support of the alliance’s research, awareness, and advocacy activities and active participation in the OVN’s symposia and workshops. This year, OVN plans to partner with enterprises, voice practitioners, platform providers, and industry associations in North America and the European Union and has formed a working relationship with the China Netcasting Service Association, the Beijing, China-based industry association responsible for voice assistance.

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