'Hey, Spark!' Cisco Launches AI-Powered Voice Assistant for Meetings

Mitch Wagner
11/2/2017
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DALLAS -- Cisco Partner Summit -- You've got Alexa in your kitchen and Siri in your pocket. Now Cisco wants to put an AI voice assistant in your meeting, with the introduction of Spark Assistant -- the fruit of Cisco's $125 million Mindmeld acquisition this year.

Spark Assistant will launch in limited availability early next year on the Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) Spark Room Series hardware endpoints for meeting rooms, which integrate voice, video, and shared whiteboards. Later, Spark Assistant will be available across all Spark clients and hardware endpoints.

Spark Assistant is based on technology from MindMeld, which Cisco acquired in May. MindMeld specializes in developing conversational interfaces that use artificial intelligence and machine learning with voice and natural language recognition.

Initial commands for Spark Assistant are limited. After activating Spark Assistant by saying "Hey Spark," users can start meetings, join WebEx rooms, call other people in the organization, and control Spark hardware endpoints to perform functions such as changing audio volume or recording meetings. But that's just the beginning -- Cisco expects the assistant to rich variety of skills to develop over time.

Cisco's Tim Tuttle.
Cisco's Tim Tuttle.

"Version 1 will help you get in and out of meetings quickly," Tim Tuttle, MindMeld CEO and founder, tells Enterprise Cloud News. Over time, Spark Assistant will learn to do more, such as share files and screens, and even record action items, highlights and meeting summaries, Tuttle says.

Tuttle sees voice assistants as hitting an inflection point for acceptance and practicality. Siri launched in 2011 and was nearly useless at first, and even a year ago accuracy for voice assistants was 80-90%, making them useless to many people. Accuracy is now hitting 98-99%, making voice assistants practical. And Cisco wants to lead that trend into the enterprise.

Spark Assistant has been a long time coming. Cisco discussed its internal development of a voice assistant, then named "Monica," in August, 2016. (See Cisco Developing 'Monica' Digital Assistant.)

Cisco led the overall collaboration market last year, with more than 15% market share, followed by Microsoft, with 10-15% market share, according to Synergy Research Group Inc. Cisco's lead is based on on-premises market, where Cisco had greater than 25% market share, compared with Microsoft's 15-20%. For the hosted/cloud market, Microsoft was the leader, with under 10% market share, and Cisco had about 5% market share.

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— Mitch Wagner Follow me on Twitter Visit my LinkedIn profile Visit my blog Follow me on Facebook Editor, Enterprise Cloud News

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Susan Fourtané
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Susan Fourtané,
User Rank: Blogger
11/28/2017 | 6:44:42 PM
Re: AI and gender
The mention of this topic about men or women’s voices and the reactions in terms of attention surprised me. I find it both intriguing and strange.
Susan Fourtané
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Susan Fourtané,
User Rank: Blogger
11/28/2017 | 6:23:15 PM
Re: AI and gender
Do you remember if there was some explanation for pilots responding better to female voices?
kq4ym
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kq4ym,
User Rank: Light Sabre
11/27/2017 | 8:02:59 AM
Re: AI and gender
I've noticed with increasing age and probably hearing going south, that I'm able to understand men's voices generally better than woman's, perhaps it's a factor of the frequency range making a difference in comprehension o the vocal sounds.
kq4ym
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kq4ym,
User Rank: Light Sabre
11/14/2017 | 10:49:05 AM
Re: AI and gender
I also seem to recall some research decades ago by the FAA that pilots responded better to female voice responses in aircraft cockpits for various warnings "pull up" etc, etc. Whether that applies to emergency messages or normal responses I'm not so sure.
Susan Fourtané
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Susan Fourtané,
User Rank: Blogger
11/5/2017 | 5:21:12 PM
Re: AI and gender
I checked a few articles about it. One argued that consumers like female voices better than male-voiced gadgets, another one said that it’s easier to find a female voice that everyone likes. Siri says he is genderless, and advices I can change his voice in settings. A few other articles were talking about sexism in virtual assistants.
Mitch Wagner
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Mitch Wagner,
User Rank: Lightning
11/5/2017 | 3:42:53 PM
Re: AI and gender
I have not noticed a difference in myself either. 
Susan Fourtané
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Susan Fourtané,
User Rank: Blogger
11/5/2017 | 1:28:06 AM
Re: AI and gender
How interesting, MItch. I don’t seem to notice a difference in myself, though. Perhaps I just belong to the minority. Are you more likely to pay attention to women’s voices?
Mitch Wagner
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Mitch Wagner,
User Rank: Lightning
11/4/2017 | 7:10:11 PM
Re: AI and gender
I seem to recall reading that both men and women are more likely to pay attention to women's voices. 
Susan Fourtané
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Susan Fourtané,
User Rank: Blogger
11/3/2017 | 2:27:28 AM
AI and gender
Conversational interfaces using AI and machine learning with voice and natural language recognition are really getting momentum. As noted the accuracy of AIs such as Siri has improved a lot. I frequently use Siri and I’m happy it. I have one question, Mitch, why all these AI assistants that live in our purse/bag/pocket/kitchen/meeting room are conceived as female? What about Spark? Obviously, Monica and Alexa don’t have an option for male voice, as Siri has. I have changed my Siri to a male version.
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