CPA INSIDER

What you should know about smart speakers at work

Voice-controlled digital assistants are popular in the home, but can Alexa, Cortana, Google Assistant, and others also help you in the workplace?
By Lea Hart

Chances are you, or someone you know, received a smart speaker such as the Amazon Echo or Google Home over the holiday season. In fact, the Seattle Times reported that Amazon sold "tens of millions" of Echo devices during the peak holiday shopping season.

At home, these devices commonly play music, adjust the temperature, and check the weather, among other features. That may leave you wondering whether they could play a role in your workplace as well.

On the other hand, if you don't own one at home, you may simply be trying to understand what these devices are all about, and how they differ from one another.

Here's a look at what's out there, as well as some thoughts on how they might be used in the workplace of the future.

A variety of smart speakers

It can be a confusing market to navigate. We often hear about "Alexa," but Alexa is not a device. It's the voice-controlled assistant found on Amazon's Echo smart speaker products — the same way Cortana speaks to you from Microsoft programs and devices, Siri speaks to you from Apple devices, and the Google Assistant speaks to you from Google devices.

Each provider offers devices that house these assistants. For example, Amazon has the Echo Dot and the Echo, among others, while Google has Google Home and Google Home Max. Amazon currently controls the largest segment of the market; however, it's a hot race among competitors. This 2017 article from TechCrunch talks about that race, and compares the basics, from costs to capabilities, on the various options.

"These virtual assistants — except for Alexa — are also on devices other than smart speakers," said Rick Richardson, CPA/CITP, CGMA, CEO and managing partner of Richardson Media & Technologies. "Google Assistant, Siri, and Cortana are available on smartphones, tablets — and laptops and desktops in the case of Siri and Cortana."

A virtual assistant for the workplace?

Already, Amazon, Microsoft, and others are promoting their voice-controlled digital assistants for the workplace. For example, Alexa for Business can perform standard office functions such as dialing multiple people for a conference call, managing office calendars, and making phone calls or sending messages, among others, according to Amazon.

However, the technology isn't in widespread use at this point. Jim Bourke, CPA/CITP/CFF, CGMA, partner with WithumSmith+Brown, said he travels the world for work, and has yet to see anyone using it from a business perspective.

"That's not to say that it won't happen," Bourke said.

Byron Patrick, CPA/CITP, CGMA, managing director of the CPA practice at Network Alliance, expects users will be able to use these assistants to answer questions such as, "what time is my meeting?"

The real challenge, he said, may be changing user habits.

"You can ask Alexa, but nine times out of 10, I still just pick up my phone and look for the information," he said.

Windows users need to enable Cortana on their device, but once they do, simply saying, "Hey, Cortana," and asking a question will activate the voice-controlled digital assistant within Windows in the same way saying "Hey, Alexa" does on the Echo devices.

"I expect Cortana will focus on the business space," Patrick said. "That has always been Microsoft's focus — to dominate the business world and the consumer world will follow. So Microsoft will be building capabilities that are core to the business world, integrations with Office 365, which includes email, calendaring, SharePoint, Lync, and many other business tools."

In the accounting world, don't expect these various devices and voice assistants to do the work for you — they likely won't complete a tax return on your client's behalf. But they could be used for research or they may change the way accountants use the internet, according to Richardson.

He pointed out that accountants may be able to more quickly access information by speaking to their device, rather than having to go search for the information. For example, CPAs could ask a voice-controlled digital assistant to find the latest SEC filings, rather than researching that information themselves, he said.

"If you're on the phone with someone and can easily get an answer, that would be useful," Richardson said.

Though these devices will be able to perform certain tasks once done by a human, Patrick doesn't envision them replacing human assistants. An Amazon Echo will never mail a package, or assemble a tax return, for example.

"That said, there are many situations where businesses could avoid hiring someone by leveraging the functionality—and some future functionalities—and simply shift the physical needs to someone else," Patrick said. 

It could impact the demographics in the workplace, he said. A business with three administrative assistants might cut that number to two because some responsibilities could shift to a digital assistant.

Privacy concerns

Anurag Sharma, principal of WithumSmith+Brown's cybersecurity consulting practice and System and Organization Controls practice, said users will need to weigh the benefits against the security and privacy risks as they consider bringing these devices into the workplace. Consider that, once activated with a voice command such as "Hey, Alexa" or "Hey, Cortana," these devices can record and store conversations in the cloud, he said.

Sharma said he also believes that adequate security controls are typically not being put in place while deploying these devices.

"I would feel it is fairly easy for somebody with the knowledge of vulnerabilities associated with such devices or their underlying operating system and programming skills to create exploits to target these devices, and then make them behave in a way they're not supposed to," he said. "Such a person can then figure out how to turn them on and record conversations."

While the devices' business utility is still questionable at this point, it's important to keep an eye on the technology.

"Accountants need to stay abreast of changes," Bourke said. "To run and hide from technology is crazy."

Like any technology, voice-controlled devices likely will change at a rapid pace, Bourke said. He cited Apple's iPad as an example of technology moving from the home to the workplace. The iPad was once seen as mostly an entertainment device, but accountants have come to realize it does have a place in the business world for email and client collaboration, he said.

"Many technologies that we deploy in the business world started in our homes," Bourke said. "It's just a matter of time before those technologies work their way into the workplace."

Lea Hart is a freelance writer based in North Carolina. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Chris Baysden, associate director for content development, at Chris.Baysden@aicpa-cima.com.

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