Digital assistants and AI: voice will be the next tech disruption

11 Jun 2018

Leading researchers, developers and thought leaders of artificial intelligence shared insights on how AI and digital assistants will transform our lives at a conference at the Centre for Global Dialogue in Rüschlikon.

Our summary video explores what digital assistants can do now, what their future looks like and how their evolution will affect the insurance industry and our lives.

Watch our individual interviews with Google's Tilke Judd, IBM Watson's Gabi Zodik, Beyond Verbal Communication's Yoram Levanon, AI professor Nick Jennings, and professor of philosophy Thomas Metzinger.

Not sure what a digital assistant is or does? Check out our funny explainer video.

For a look into what might happen with humans in the future, watch the speech by Neil Harbisson, cyborg and transspecies activist.

Scroll down for the key takeaways of each speaker. For a visual representation of the talks, browse through our graphic recording ebook. To get a sense of the ambiance, take a look at our picture gallery.


Setting the scene

How digital assistants will transform our lives

Rainer Baumann, Head Group Digital & Information Service, Swiss Re
David Bosshart, CEO, Gottlieb Duttweiler Institute
Costas Bekas, Distinguished Researcher and Manager, IBM Research Zurich

  • How much do we want to socialise risk when we have individual information? The regulators help insurers to answer that question.
  • We are looking for the promise of hyper-efficiency and economic growth but with the danger of less privacy, less equality and less autonomy.
  • We are creatures that create tools. Artificial intelligence is just another tool. Despite its complexity, we need simple rules to deal with them.

Nick Jennings, Professor of Artificial Intelligence, Imperial College London

  • AI is not something in the distant future. AI is routinely here.
  • We need to build effective partnerships between humans and technology, because both together produce better results.
  • AI is impressive with narrowly defined tasks. Artificial general intelligence is a long way off.

Karen Kaushansky, Experience Design Leader, Robot Futures Consulting GmbH

  • How are we going to accept robots in our lives? Being able to talk to them will make those bonds more acceptable.
  • App fatigue has settled in. Voice is the key to an app-less world.
  • Assistants will be connected and talk to each other. Maybe Alexa plays your music and Cortana manages your bank accounts.

Gabi Zodik, Director, CTO and Head of Development for Watson Assistant Solutions, IBM Watson

  • Assistants will be branded according to the company using it. How can they preserve the brand identity in a voice?
  • The more the assistant knows about you, the better services it can provide. But how do we make sure that their data is safe?
  • We need take responsibility for the conversations we have. What if someone confesses suicidal thoughts to his car assistant?

What are digital assistants and how do they work?

Meet your future best friend

Dave Isbitski, Chief Evangelist Alexa and Echo, Amazon

  • I have never seen the personal connection with desktop, web or mobile as we have with voice interfaces.
  • We believe voice represents the next major disruption in computing.
  • With a voice interface, people are not focused on the screen anymore. Interacting with a machine and with our fellow humans is not mutually exclusive anymore.
  • What does your brand sound like?

Tilke Judd, Product Manager, Google

  • The voice interface is a democratic revolution. Even people who can’t read can use it.
  • We open our platform to third party assistants to get more things done.
  • We will tell people that they are going to talk with a digital assistant when being called by one.


Alex Dogariu, Manager Customer Management Strategy & AI Lead, Mercedes-Benz Consulting

  • We don’t just want to entertain people. We want to get things done.
  • Trust is the key. It is important to control your personal data in order to interact with systems. You must be able to delete all your data.
  • Customers don’t want to activate skills. They want to transition between the services seamlessly.

Wally Brill, Head of Conversation Design Advocacy & Education, Google

  • Every voice carries a persona.
  • Within a second of hearing a voice, we pull a lot of characteristics out of it.
  • We are anthropomorphising machines. How far do we want to go? How far is appropriate?

Yoram Levanon, Chief Scientific Officer, Beyond Verbal Communication

  • For an AI to interact with a human, it needs to understand emotions. That way it can give us recommendations on how to live a less stressful life.
  • Vocal biomarkers are passive, continuous, non-invasive and cost effective.
  • Out of 90 seconds of speech, we can detect heart disease with a high accuracy.

An outlook

When man and machine start to merge

Thomas Metzinger, Professor of Philosophy, Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz

  • What if a benevolent and all-knowing superintelligence comes to the conclusion that non-existence is in the best interest of all living beings?
  • The biggest risk from AI comes from the coupling of AI with our stone-age minds. Resources should be allocated to make humans and societies consistent. But we could use AI for that.
  • There will be a time when you cannot call the general at three in the morning. Then you lost the war.

Claude Clément, Chief Technology Officer, Wyss Center for Bio and Neuroengineering

  • We will never be able to understand the brain as a whole.
  • We can reactivate paralyzed limbs through thoughts by reading brain activity and stimulating the muscles.
  • By measuring brain activities, we can predict epileptic fits and could one day deploy targeted medicine.
  • The communication between the brain and a computer needs to be secured, especially when we are able to write on the brain.

Neil Harbisson, Cyborg and Transpecies Activist

  • I am not wearing an antenna, I have an antenna – just as I am not wearing a nose, but I have one.
  • I can compose music with different vegetables. I can listen to art. Supermarkets are so colorful. For me they are as exciting as nightclubs are for other people.
  • People who say they are black are actually dark orange. People who say they are white are light orange. Basically, we are all orange.
  • In the future, there will be more people with additional sensory capabilities.


Taken from the Swiss Re Institute's A.I. everywhere in June 2018.
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·         The voice interface is a democratic revolution. Even people who can’t read can use it.

·         We open our platform to third party assistants to get more things done.

·         We will tell people that they are going to talk with a digital assistant when being called by one.

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