Oracle launches AI voice assistant for its business app suite

Oracle has added AI voice commands to its Digital Assistant, offering users an alternative way to interact with its various business apps. The company on Tuesday also announced that the bot will integrate with Microsoft's work stream collaboration platform, Teams.

Oracle's Digital Assistant was launched last year as an interface to its portfolio of enterprise software applications, which includes sales, marketing and human resource tools. The virtual assistant uses AI techniques such as machine learning and natural language processing and understanding to interpret user intent; it's designed to automate processes such as expense approvals and meeting re-schedules.

The Digital Assistant was initially targeted at text interactions and embedded in various communication and collaboration tools such as Slack, WeChat and Facebook Messenger, as well as user websites and as a standalone mobile app. The most common use cases so far have  been customer service interactions, employee self-service for IT help desk issues, and interactions with Oracle's enterprise resource planning systems, such as invoices, the company said.

The addition of a voice interface should broaden the appeal of the virtual assistant, said Suhas Uliyar, Oracle's vice president of AI and Oracle Digital Assistant. "One of the things we are beginning to see in the field or have received feedback from customers on is the rise of voice in the enterprise," he said. "People want to be able to speak to the chatbot or virtual assistant rather than type or tap."

Voice assistants have proven popular with users at home and have begun to spread into the workplace; Amazon's Alexa for Business service is a prime example.  Although adoption rates are still low, analyst firm Gartner forecast that 25% of digital workers will interact with voice assistants on a daily basis within two years.

"Being able to issue your software a voice command and get a quick and accurate answer is powerful," said Annette Jump, a senior director analyst at Gartner. "With every advancement in widely used technologies such as Google Assistant, Siri and Alexa, people get more used to this way of working (or telling their systems to do the work for them) and they shift their expectations of consumer and business applications."

Why build another voice assistant?

Oracle's Digital Assistant already interacts with other voice assistants, including Apple's Siri and Amazon's Alexa. Uliyar cited two key reasons the company is adding its own voice capabilities - namely a lack of support for business vocabulary and privacy concerns in relation to other AI-based options.

Apple, Amazon, Google and Microsoft have each come under fire after  reports that staff and contract workers have been given access to small numbers of customer voice recordings for quality review. Amazon, Google and Microsoft have defended the practice.

Uliyar stressed that customer data will not be accessed by Oracle employees.

"Customers don't want their data going to public cloud vendors, or, more specifically, being accessed or listened to by third-party vendors," he said. "In our instance, the privacy and security is maintained. Only our customers have access to their data. We don't use it to retrain our models: that's very important for GDPR. And while we store it in the Oracle second-generation cloud infrastructure, we at Oracle don't touch it. Privacy, security and compliance with GDPR is very important."

Uliyar also said Oracle was able to tailor its Digital Assistant to the language used in the workplace and add acronyms or terms common in individual sectors into the voice assistant's lexicon.

Take "KAD," for example, which in the parlance of Oracle's employees refers to "key account director." This is liable to be taken as a reference to a 'cat' or "CAD," the abbreviation for Canadian dollars, by more consumer-focused AI assistants, said Uliyar.

Another feature is the option to receive text responses to spoken questions, which helps address the challenges of voice assistant interactions in a busy office, Oracle said.

Using a voice assistant in the workplace can raise data protection concerns if sensitive data is broadcast for other employees to hear, while the noise can be a distraction.

"For example, you may be in an office where there are cubicles everywhere," said Uliyar. "Imagine the chaos if everyone's digital assistant spoke back to you. Even at a low volume that would be a lot. You can turn it off, you can just speak to the digital assistant and you can get the data back in text."

By delivering text responses, voice assistants should be no more disruptive than an employee taking a phone call. "Users want to be able to speak what comes in their mind and if they can get an answer back as text they love that because now they are not disturbing anyone," Uliyer said.

Jim Lundy, founder and CEO at Aragon Research, called Oracle's OpenWorld demo of the assistant's ability to file an expense report "solid" and he anticipates interest among enterprises in new ways of interacting with cloud apps.

"Being able to talk to an enterprise app is a big deal - we see growing demand for Q&A bots and ones that do tasks for you," he said. "The biggest issue Oracle faces is that it is mainly selling its Digital Assistant to existing Oracle Customers. There are many firms looking for chatbots that solve fundamental questions and answers - Oracle needs to make it easier for those firms to acquire Oracle Digital Assistant offerings. Note, the Microsoft Teams deal should help."

Even so, questions have been raised over Oracle's ability to deliver a voice assistant. One analyst warned users of Oracle's lack of expertise with voice AI technologies and suggested it would be better to partner with another vendor with more experience.

"Customers should be very skeptical before deploying Oracle's Digital Assistant," said Patrick Moorhead, founder and president of Moor Insights & Strategy. "The company has no track record in AI, particularly natural language speech and cognition. I would feel a lot more comfortable if Oracle had partnered with companies like Microsoft or Amazon that have leadership capabilities in voice."

Microsoft Teams integration

As for the AI's assistant integration with Microsoft Teams, Oracle said it  enables workers to interact with Oracle's human capital management or sales applications without leaving Teams. This will save users time and avoiding the need to switch between apps, Oracle said.

"Now, as an employee I don't need to go to 10 different places to find my answer, I use the same tool [for team collaboration] to now chat with my sales backend or ERP backend and get the answer," said Uliyar.

Jump said that as adoption of Teams grows and becomes a central point of conversations, meetings and interactions for many office workers, virtual assistants could become a useful bridge to business apps.

"As it is always running in the background, it will be a more fluent experience to use an enterprise virtual assistant that is integrated with Teams," she said. "...For now, the usage of conversational UI is still at its early days in the enterprise, so employees/users need to learn...that such capabilities are available and find appropriate environments to use them. ...Asking for holiday allocation or some sensitive personal information from HR systems in an open plan busy office might not always be the most convenient experience."

A 2018 Gartner CIO Survey showed that only 4% of enterprises have currently deployed a chatbot or virtual assistant, while 17% are actively experimenting or planning to do so in the short term, and 21% have it in their medium- or long-term planning (over the next two to five years).

The decision to integrate with Microsoft's application makes sense as the two companies continue to work together, Lundy said. "Since many Oracle accounts are also Microsoft Office 365 accounts, this is a solid move," he said.

"Overall, there seems to be more cooperation between Microsoft and Oracle - most likely to thwart the growing threat from Amazon AWS. We expect that this will create demand for Oracle customers - to the extent that Oracle can demonstrate more integrations with other applications - that should make Oracle Digital Assistant more sticky in non-Oracle accounts."

The Teams integration is currently available as a private preview.