How did we get here and where are we headed with voice assistants? These 11 visionaries have shaped the voice assistant landscape today and are directly influencing its future trajectory. They range from aggressive CEOs like Jeff Bezos of Amazon, Sundar Pichai of Google, and Jack Ma of Alibaba, to long-time voice assistant innovators such as Keyvan Mohajer of SoundHound, Todd Mozer of Sensory, and Adam Cheyer of Siri/Apple/Viv/Samsung. And, there are startup founders changing the way we think about the future of voice assistants such as Amir Hirsh of Audioburst and Josh Montgomery from Mycroft. Below we have included bios for each honoree and why they made the 2019 list.
To learn more about the selection methodology and honorees in the other categories go here: Go to Overview
WHY HE MADE THE LIST // It is hard to think of anyone that has had more influence on the rise of voice assistants over the past 25 years than Adam Cheyer. He built and demonstrated his first voice assistant in 1993. Fifteen years later he partnered with Dag Kittlaus and Tom Gruber to found the company Siri that was acquired in 2010 by Apple and became the iPhone 4s feature Siri. After two years working on stabilizing and extending Siri features for Apple, he left and again joined with Dag Kittlaus to found Viv Labs which was acquired by Samsung in 2016 and eventually became the Bixby 2.0 voice assistant. Bezos may have seized a moment by introducing Alexa into the home, but Adam has dedicated a career to a singular vision of creating a personal and robust voice assistant. And, he is directly responsible for two of the top five consumer voice assistants in the market today. Adam is widely admired among developers in the industry for his expertise and longevity working with AI and speech technologies.
WHY HE MADE THE LIST // Google clearly has a well-earned reputation for driving new innovation that shape industry sectors but has also become the ultimate fast-follower in new technology shifts. Android and Gmail are just a couple of successful case studies. Google Assistant falls squarely in this category. The company had introduced several voice solutions for mobile devices following Siri and then Pichai led the effort to change Google’s focus from mobile-first to AI-first. Google Assistant is one of the pillars of that shift. Google has invested heavily in the space since 2016, acquiring API.ai (now known as Dialogflow) while rolling out Assistant in over 30 languages and introducing three smart speakers and two smart displays while integrating with thousands of other devices. The company also became the first to have a voice assistant available on over one billion devices worldwide. Many people have had a hand in Google Assistant’s rise, but it is hard to see how this much progress could have been made without Pichai’s full support. Besides, he was also the person that first demonstrated Google Duplex to the world. Whether his vision originally or not, that demo is already an iconic moment in the history of voice assistants.
WHY HE MADE THE LIST // Keyvan Mohajer co-founded Soundhound, known for the app that will tell you in seconds what song is playing. However, his goal from the start was to build a voice assistant. The song recognition was a way station to keep venture capitalists happy while he continued to fund and develop the technology behind what is now the Hound assistant and Houndify platform. While Amazon, Google, and Samsung pursue consumer adoption directly, Mohajer has positioned SoundHound as a go-to assistant option for companies that want a white-label solution that offers full control over the user experience and data. The approach seems to be working. SoundHound has raised over $200 million in venture capital funding including at $100 round in 2018 that valued the company at over $1 billion. And, it now boasts customers ranging from Mercedes and Honda to Pandora, Midea, and Orange.
WHY HE MADE THE LIST // Chinese entrepreneur turned billionaire, Ma started online marketplace Alibaba in 1999. Under Alibaba Group the company grew into a multinational conglomerate specializing in technology, e-commerce, and retail. A close watcher of Amazon’s business model, Alibaba Group introduced a smart speaker named Tmall Genie in 2017 that is powered by an open-platform AI voice assistant, AliGenie also sometimes confusingly referred to as Tmall Genie. Reports from China show Alibaba with about 40% smart speaker market share and its installed base will rise to over 20 million users. In addition, Tmall Genie auto is being integrated into cars from Volvo, BMW, Honda, Audi and Renault for the Chinese market. Alibaba is also using its voice assistant to proactively schedule package delivery times with customers reportedly without any humans in the loop. Rival Baidu now has broader reach with its DuerOS assistant available in several hundred million devices, but Ma is the best known spokesperson for the rise of voice assistants in China and is shaping how many people view the space in the world’s most populous country.
WHY HE MADE THE LIST // Sensory was pioneering the use of neural networks in the 1990’s and provides underlying voice technology today for companies ranging from AT&T and Huawei to Garmin and Waze. You will also find Sensory technology used as the wake word engine for some of the most popular consumer voice assistants. Mozer founded the company in 1994 to enable people to communicate with consumer electronics the way we do with each other, by voice. Sensory builds software and hardware products for on-device voice recognition, biometric identification, and other use cases. The company’s technology has been embedded in over three billion devices, including more than 100 models on display at CES 2019 alone. Mozer maintains a lower profile than many of the people on this list, but every manufacturer in this space pays attention to Sensory and its continually updated product line.
WHY HE MADE THE LIST // Joshua Montgomery founded Mycroft AI in early 2015 and since that time has done two successful Kickstarter campaigns, graduated from both Tech Stars and 500 Startups accelerators, raised $3 million in equity capital and delivered the world’s first open source voice assistant. He, the Mycroft team and a growing group of volunteer developers have been busy contributing to both the open source software project and delivering smart speaker and smart display devices that focus on user security along with functionality. Montgomery points to Android as an example of where open source technology increasingly outperforms closed systems. In the voice assistant space, he sees Amazon, Google, and others all following the closed system iOS-like approach of the mobile ecosystem with Mycroft as the leading open source alternative. Mycroft may be looking up at the giants of technology today, but is clearly a company to watch which could disrupt the entire sector if the scalability and customization options take off with developers.
WHY HE MADE THE LIST // Hirsh founded Audioburst in 2014 after a long career in cybersecurity with the idea of transcribing and indexing all audio content to make search and discovery as easy for audio as it is for text. Think of it as Google search applied against YouTube, but in this case it is returning not videos, but audio content. And, it goes so step further, the extract just the audio content (i.e. bursts) related to the user’s query. The natural medium for voice queries is audio responses, but most content today visual or text-based. Audiobust is now transcribing and indexing thousands of radio programs and podcasts in near real-time to provide instant access to the largest library of searchable audio content available. Voice assistants need content for users. One way to generate that content is to promote the development of thousands of voice apps. Another way is to harvest the audio content already generated each day. Audiobust is currently focused on signing up industry partners and offers the voice search and personalized playlists through Android Auto, Samsung Bixby, and Flipboard, and has raised $25 million from Samsung Ventures, Dentsu, and Hyundai.
WHY SHE MADE THE LIST // Patel founded VocaliD in 2014 to provide voice prostheses for people that cannot speak in their own voices. Instead of people without the ability to speak on their own all sounding like the same few synthetic voices, VocaliD’s technology can create entirely new and distinct voices so the speechless can have their own unique sound. Patel has been a professor at Northeastern University for 16 years with joint appointments in the health science and computer science departments. She also has held affiliate faculty positions at Harvard and MIT. Patel’s mission to provide synthetic voices for the speechless has recently extended into working with brands and other organizations. Increasingly these organizations want to stand out with their own distinctive sounding voices as they launch solutions their users can access through voice assistants.
WHY HE MADE THE LIST // Oren Jacob began shaping how people thought about voice interaction around the time of Siri’s launch on the iPhone. His 20-year career making movies at Pixar offered a different perspective about voice assistant interactions than the engineers and designers focused on utilitarian applications and efficient, short engagements. He co-founded PullString in 2011 (originally known as ToyTalk) and went on to raise over $40 million in venture capital before the company was acquired by Apple in late 2018. Along the way, PullString worked on high profile projects for Mattel, Amazon’s Grand Tour, and SpongeBob as well as launching the Converse SaaS solution for building, deploying and maintaining conversational apps. PullString shut down its independent operations and software after the acquisition and it is not yet clear how the technology will ultimately be used to support Apple’s new ambitions for Siri and conversational engagement. However, this is another area where Jacob’s influence will continue to have an impact given Apple’s unique position in the voice ecosystem.
WHY HE MADE THE LIST // Dr. Rand Hindi is an entrepreneur and researcher in artificial intelligence and privacy. He is the CEO at Snips, an edge-based, private-by-design voice solution for OEMs that was founded in 2013 and has raised over $18 million in funding. Whereas the popular consumer voice assistants and other leading solutions leverage cloud-based technology for speech recognition and intent extraction, Snips delivers narrowly focused voice assistant solutions that can run completely on disconnected devices such as household appliances. Hindi has been elected as a TR35 by the MIT Technology Review, as a “30 under 30” by Forbes, and is a lecturer at Sciences Po in Paris. He was previously a member of the French Digital Council where he focused on AI and Privacy issues.