Hey Google, Israeli Startups Are Joining the Voice-tech Revolution

Siri, Alexa, competing with keyboards. But there’s still plenty of innovation left to do

Illustration.
Jamie Jones / Ikon Images / Getty Images IL

“Two weeks ago I was meeting with a friend at a café. I asked him who was at home with his daughter, who’s in first grade, and he answered without giving it a second thought, ‘Alexa. If there’s a problem she can get her to call me.’”

That’s a story Itay Asulin, who works at the venture capital fund Mangrove Capital Partners, offers by way of demonstrating how voice technology is no longer a thing of the future but of the here and now. Alexa isn’t a babysitter but the voice assistant device sold by Amazon.

A study by Mangrove, which is based in Luxembourg, documents the rapid in which voice interfaces are penetrating areas like online retail and automobiles. There are already 2.5 billion voice assistants of various makes globally and by 2023 the number should grow to the entire world population, it forecasts.

“After many years of typing on keyboards and then tapping on mobile screens, we are now reverting to the original “user interface” voice. While we are yet to feel the full impact of voice technology, it is gradually transforming how we interact with the digital world,” the report said.

Siri, which was the first of the widely deployed voice assistants when it was launched in 2001 by Apple, controls 45% of the U.S. market. Google Assistant has about 29% and Alexa 13.2%. For smart speakers, the technology that enables users to speak to their voice assistants, is growing, too. Canalysis says the number in use in the U.S. jumped 78% last year to 188 million, with the market dominated by Amazon products.

Israelis use voice technology less than American but that doesn’t mean Israeli startups are missing out on the action. Although big players like Google, Apple and Amazon dominate the market, there is plenty of room for startup innovations: Mangrove estimates that investment in voice startups worldwide grew from less than $31 million in 2016 to $786 million in the first half of this year and a project $1.53 billion for all of 2019.

American startups have captured the lion’s share of the money – more than $1 billion over the three-and-a-half years. But Israel got a big share, too -- $60.8 million, compared with $118 million for all of Europe and $100 million for China, according to Mangrove.

The industry has one exit under its belt: In May Salesforce.com paid $30 million for Bonobo, a conversational AI platform that allows companies to analyze their communications.

One Israeli startup in the field is Twiggle, which uses artificial intelligence AI-powered technology to connect shoppers to the products retailers sell online using natural voice communication. Founded in 2014, it has raised $35 million to date.

Amazon, among others thinks voice is the future of online shopping, and Shlomit Tennenboum, Twiggle’s director of product management agrees.

“Our lives are made up of moments when we remember something we need, and then forget about it,” she explained “In the end, we do our shopping based on what comes to mind at that moment. This is where the voice interface application comes to fore, because you can talk to the assistant any time and say ‘Add triple-A batteries to my shopping list.’ You down download it straight from the head, without typing. “

Twiggle’s Natural Language Analyzer extracts ontological categories, product types and attributes from raw queries and product specifications. It can cope with ambiguities, typos, inferences, conjunctions, negations and other language permutations.

“If the customer says ‘I want to buy ice cream, vanilla. Get me a big container,’ the assistant has to understand that he doesn’t want vanilla extract in large bottle, but vanilla ice cream in large container,” said Tennenboum. “It needs to understand the context of the request. Of if the customer wants kosher vanilla Ben & Jerry’s and it’s and out of stock to offer you instead kosher chocolate and non-kosher vanilla ice cream.”

Another application more people are familiar with is voice in customer call service centers, Israelis startups like Gong.io and Chrorus.ai have each raised tens of millions of venture capital to develop voice interfaces that can understand what the customer is saying and needs and what kind of marketing message works better than others.

Voca.ai has taken the process a step further with an entirely virtual customer service rep.

“We founded Voca with the dream of developing the first bot who’s ‘human,’ that you can speak to naturally, who can make emotional contact with the other party and is smart -- knows how to give good answers and represents the organization honorably,” said CEO and founder Einav Itamar.

The company’s website demonstrates how its virtual assistant makes contact with a customer in order to collect a debt. It explains the problem to the customer, answers questions and suggests a solution.

Debt collection is a big business in the U.S., said Itamar, and financial service companies like banks and lending service firms. Funded in 2017, Voca.ai now counts about 10 paying customers and another about 50 trying out the products, It handles two million phone conversations a month. It counts 21 employees and last December raised $2.6 million.

Another voice startup, Airbud.io, which last month announced it completed a $4 million round, has developed technology that lets companies add voice/chat bot utility to their existing websites. Airbud uses information collected from the website, paired with an easy plug-and-play system, to automatically build out a knowledge graph that enables conversations with end-users.

“We saw enormous growth in the use of voice in the last few years and the big push for it by the technology giants,” said CEO Israel Krush. “It was clear to us that there are organizations that were being left out of the revolution.”

The startup was formed only last year and has just four employees. He’s confident that voice is the next big thing.

“Look at your children. When they see a screen what do they do? They try to touch it because they expect it to be a touch screen. That’s different from our generation,” said Krush.

“My three-year-old already knows how to operate Alexa by himself and asks it to get him the song ‘The Wheels on the Bus.’ He recently tried to order the car radio to do the same thing. He simply expects every device to understand him.”