BARCELONA -- Mobile World Congress 2017 -- Telefónica has taken a bold leap into the age of artificial intelligence with its launch today of a new digital assistant called Aura, which appears to be the product of a two-year research initiative at the Spanish telco that has been a closely guarded secret.
Unveiled in Barcelona on the cusp of this year's Mobile World Congress, Aura sounds and works much like Apple Inc. (Nasdaq: AAPL)'s Siri or Amazon.com Inc. (Nasdaq: AMZN)'s Alexa, allowing customers to check on details of their Telefónica service -- and ask for problems to be resolved or new features to be provided -- using a voice interface on a mobile device.
Judging by the demonstration at Telefónica's offices in Barcelona, Aura works at least as effectively as the digital assistants developed by the web giants but differs in one important respect: It stores and can act upon all of the information about a particular user that is relevant to his or her relationship with the operator.
In fact, Telefónica balks at the "digital assistant" label, preferring to think of Aura as a "cognitive intelligence" system than a neat bit of voice-recognition software.
The Spanish incumbent says the service comes with three overarching benefits for users: first, giving them a measure of control through a natural language interface; second, offering full "transparency" about their dealings with Telefónica; and third, allowing customers to discover new service possibilities.
CEO José María Álvarez-Pallete described Aura as a "fourth platform" that would sit on top of the physical networks, IT systems and digital services that make up the other three.
It appears to have been developed in close cooperation with software giant Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT), which has recently been ramping up its investments in the field of artificial intelligence.
Speaking at Telefónica's press event, Peggy Johnson, the vice president of business development for Microsoft, said that a number of recent technology breakthroughs had been fed into the Aura project.
For one thing, Microsoft now claims that its artificial intelligence systems can recognize speech as well as a human -- with a data error rate of less than 6% -- and that image recognition capabilities have an error rate of less than 3%.
"Conversation as a platform and natural language interaction with computers -- that is a paradigm shift on a par with the mouse and touchscreen and web browser, and core to this is some of the technology shown with Aura," said Johnson.
Besides teaming up with Microsoft, Telefónica has also announced Aura partnerships with other high-profile technology companies, including Facebook .
The social networking giant says it has improved the effectiveness of its recently launched safety check service -- which allows Facebook users to flag their safety in a terrorist or environmental crisis -- through a tie-up with Telefónica.
With Aura, Facebook can improve the accuracy of notifications by requesting location-based data from participating customers.
Telefónica Chief Data Officer Chema Alonso says Aura will be rolled out in the next 12 months in major markets including Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Spain and the UK.
What remains unclear is whether Aura will constitute a new revenue-growth opportunity for the telco. Telefónica had nothing to say about the pricing of the service but seems likely to include it with tariffs for no additional charge -- judging by the way other digital assistants have been offered.
There might also be doubts about the consumer appetite for yet another digital assistant. Just as Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) has become the go-to choice for most search-engine users, those taking advantage of voice-controlled digital assistants seem likely to be drawn to just one or two services in the long run.
Telefónica is obviously trying to avoid any comparisons with Siri and Alexa, presenting Aura as an "open ecosystem" that is constantly on the lookout for new over-the-top partners. Indeed, Aura has already been engineered to work in conjunction with Alexa, meaning Alexa users can make requests that draw on the intelligence within Aura.
The Aura technology might also lead to some cost and efficiency benefits for Telefónica, which says about 45% of the requests that come through to its call centers are about bill clarification and the availability of certain TV services.
"Aura can work out if you have the right package to watch a particular program," explains Alonso.
Telefónica did not say how much investment had gone into Aura but did reveal that it has spent a total of €48 billion ($51 billion) on networks, IT systems and digital service development during the past five years.
— Iain Morris, , News Editor, Light Reading