The BBC are the latest to invest in their own digital AI assistant. The UK broadcaster is aiming to launch the assistant, tentatively named "Beeb," in 2020 with the aim of enabling people to interact with BBC apps and online services with their voice. The assistant will work on all smartphones, smart TVs, and smart speakers rather than having dedicated hardware. The BBC is wisely not attempting to compete with Amazon Alexa, Apple Siri, or Google Assistant, and will keep a very tight focus for its product.
Understanding language remains a hugely difficult problem for AI assistants to overcome. The wide variety of dialects, accents, and colloquialisms mean that even though some of the biggest digital assistants in the world are tutored in English, this learning is in American English; not British English. According to Omdia's Digital Consumer Insights: Consumer AI survey, almost most half of AI assistant users in the UK (46%) reported that their assistant "regularly does not understand" what they are saying. Training assistants to fill in these gaps can be both expensive and fraught with data privacy potholes – Apple very recently had to shutter a program that listened to users' interactions with Siri.
In that context, having local players step in to provide bespoke solutions for their territory makes sense. It should also give the BBC an advantage compared to its competition in the UK as the presumed increased ease-of-use for Beeb should ensure more users find the shows they are looking for quickly and keep coming back as a result.
A big problem though for the BBC is that people don't tend to use a voice assistant to interact with their TV. In the UK, almost three quarters (73%) of survey respondents said they never used a voice assistant on their TV. Across all devices, 62% of UK AI assistant users said they "never" or "very rarely" use their AI assistant for searching for and watching video/TV shows. The most common use cases for AI assistants are more general – such as checking the news, placing a voice call, or navigation. The number of people using voice to interact with video content will inevitably increase, but video interaction will remain a relatively minor use case for AI assistants.
The most common task people use their digital assistant for is for playing music, and this could be where the BBC is hoping Beeb can make an impact. The BBC admitted last year that young people are increasingly relying on music streaming services rather than their radio stations for music consumption. Making Beeb both easy to use and intelligent in understanding what users are asking for could help the BBC earn back some listeners. An AI assistant would also provide a new avenue for BBC radio programs to interact with their listeners with call-ins, competition entries, and listener voting elements all potentially done through Beeb.