AI and its impact on the music hardware business

Advancements in AI, AR and VR are making a big impact on the music and audio hardware businesses. The development of new user experiences with AI and related technologies in particular is going to drive the next wave of innovation. Here, Pete Downton (deputy CEO) and Manan Vohra (operations director) from digital music solutions company 7Digital tell AMI about the current – and future – impact of AI.

Manan Vohra: There’s no doubt about it – hardware is changing. Over time, there has been a real convergence of software and devices. For example, Amazon’s Alexa is the product of the evolution of research in natural language processing, speech recognition, machine learning, microphone and speaker enhancements. The device is the Amazon Echo product you see, but it’s actually the advancements of software and hardware technologies that come together to deliver your contextualised experience.

Pete Downton: They’re great consumer products, but we’re just at the stage of using a first-generation technology. The quality of the voice interface and its ability to understand what we’re asking of it remains limited. You need to know exactly what you want and how to manipulate the voice assistant in order to get the desired response. That’s going to develop over time. In fact, technology already exists that is much better than Alexa, but Amazon has the market dominance.

Vohra: It’s true: smart speakers right now are dealing with simplified tasks and we do see fundamental user experience problems. But considering the nascent stage of these products, there is a lot more to be done with the underlying software (with all the machine learning algorithms and deep learning processes that entails) and availability of user behaviour data that will help improve the end user experience.

Downton: We’re going to see more companies coming into the smart speaker category, trying to take advantage of the mainstream audience that these products have opened up. They want to reach the kind of people that are used to spending their time listening to the radio rather than just targeting the seasoned music streaming aficionados, who are only a small portion of music listeners out there.

Vohra: And the term ‘smart speakers’ is a somewhat misleading label considering they are more input than output devices. In the case of Google Home, Amazon Echo and Apple Pod, these devices listen to our music needs (“Play me some jazz”), process these commands against vast amount of music metadata, debate the context using machine learning algorithms, and then out comes a track or playlist to provide us a lean-back experience. They create a moment of serendipity for users who don’t know what they want.

Downton: Where do you think AI is going to lead the music hardware business? In the immediate future, AI means an increase in the sales of smart speakers (we’ve already seen that happen), and will probably cause a continued shift towards hardware that has voice recognition functionality and less reliance on displays and touch interfaces. That’s only likely to increase as consumers become more familiar to interacting with music in this way, and as things like improved natural language processing and better availability of metadata makes music discovery easier.

Vohra: Right, and ultimately, technology is going to enable a future that is less about carry-on devices and more about wearable and shareable devices. Looking ahead 50-100 years, you’ll be able to take your unique experience anywhere with you without actually owning the device. Logging into your own account through fingerprint recognition on any device means there will be no need to carry a phone everywhere with you. In that world, the idea of ownership of any kind of device, or even a car, becomes an old-fashioned idea.

Downton: That vision of the future isn’t as far off as it may seem! Having previously worked in the labels for decades, my concern is that we’ve seen the music industry be complacent in the face of new technologies before. There’s an opportunity to recognise the value of AI and immersive experiences in music here, but it could slip through our fingers. We need to collaborate and grow through connections with other industries (like consumer technology, automotive, and others) before the world moves on to solve other problems.

Vohra: Obviously, I’m really interested in how we can use new technologies, but it must always be rooted in what is useful and makes a real difference in the lives of consumers. Technology should be seamless and frictionless. As much as the industry promotes the idea of ambient interfaces powered by AI, there is still a need for hardware that uses tactile interfaces (not least for reasons of accessibility), and many users will need time to adjust to emerging voice-enabled search and discovery models.

Downton: Absolutely. We’re starting to see that there’s a significant market out there for this new generation of hardware – one that’s been created by music streaming.