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Google Ups Ante In Voice Assistant Wars With Startup Investment Plan

As tech companies bet on AI assistant technology, Google announces an investment program for voice-powered startups.

Google Ups Ante In Voice Assistant Wars With Startup Investment Plan
[Photo: Flickr user Maurizio Pesce]

Google is putting its money where its mouth is with a plan to plow capital into startups that use its proprietary voice assistant technology, including ones building new skillsets for its Google Assistant platform and new hardware to host the digital assistants.

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The strategy, announced Wednesday, aims to support startups with investment funds, guidance from Google staff, and marketing support through Google’s existing channels. Companies can also receive early access to new Google tools and features, so they can build them into their products more quickly.

Edwin, a Bay Area company that’s built a machine learning-powered English tutoring system that helps students pass the standardized Test of English as a Foreign Language, is among the first startups signed to the program. Right now, users can take Edwin courses through Facebook’s Messenger, but the company says Google Assistant will soon be supported as well.

“Google Assistant combines a whole suite of advanced technologies into a robust platform well suited for practicing speaking,” Edwin CEO Dmitry Stavisky wrote on Medium in announcing Google’s investment. “In the future, Edwin’s students will be able to practice speaking with Google Assistant. This will also make Edwin widely available on smartphones and Google Home devices, bringing our education technology closer to millions of people around the world.”

Google’s announcement comes as competition heats up among tech companies eager to find the next big platform, as the market for smartphones reaches its saturation point and consumers are getting more used to voice-powered AI assistants.

Google Assistant, Amazon’s Alexa, Microsoft’s Cortana and Apple’s Siri are competing to be the spoken-word answer to the smartphone touchscreen, the Windows Start Menu and the living room TV remote, with the potential to speak to users from their kitchen counters, car dashboards, wristwatches and television sets.

“Voice is a totally different medium for consumers and for developers,” said Ilya Gelfenbeyn, the newly announced head of Google Assistant Investments, in announcing support for Seattle voice app testing company Pulse Labs. “It is fundamentally changing how we interact with and access the information that shapes our lives.”

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So far, Amazon’s Echo products hold the lead in smart speaker sales, with 71.9% of the market compared to 18.4% for Google, according to a March report by the industry news and analysis firm Voicebot. But at least hundreds of millions more users have access to Google Assistant and Siri through their Android and iOS devices, and to Cortana through machines running Windows, and the jury’s still out as to what devices will prove most popular for speaking to smart audio assistants.

Google isn’t the only big tech company investing in new computing platforms. Amazon previously announced the Alexa Fund, providing up to $100 million in investment in voice-powered technology. And Microsoft last month announced plans to invest $5 billion in internet-of-things technology over the next four years.

Among other companies winning investment from Google was Southern California-based GoMoment, which develops the AI-powered hotel concierge Ivy, that lets guests ask basic questions and make service requests without needing to speak to a human.

Not all the companies make products that are directly consumer-facing: Botsociety, a San Francisco company that offers tools to quickly design and test voice interfaces and text chatbots is also among the companies named by Google.

Pulse Labs, which connects the makers of voice-powered services with paid testers, also received support.

Interested companies can contact Google through an online form.

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About the author

Steven Melendez is an independent journalist living in New Orleans.

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