Yandex today announced a new Russian-speaking voice assistant called Alice. It is available through the Yandex mobile app on iOS and Android. A blog post on Yandex.com says that Alice “speaks excellent Russian…understands users’ natural language requests and provides contextually relevant answers.” Natural language understanding (NLU) is a key element of all voice assistants today, but the contextual awareness is something that many existing assistants struggle to provide. The post also emphasizes Alice’s Russian language fluency.
Speech recognition is especially challenging for the Russian language due to its grammatical and morphological complexities. According to word error rate (WER) measurements, [Yandex’s] SpeechKit provides world-best accuracy for spoken Russian recognition, enabling Alice to understand speech with a near human-level accuracy.
Search Giants Morph Into Voice Assistants
In case you don’t follow the Russian technology sector, Yandex is often referred to as the Google of Russia. It was recently in the news for cutting a deal with Uber but is more known for search and advertising like its U.S. counterpart. According to reporting from CNBC and The Economist, “Yandex accounts for just over half of the search market and 61 percent of online advertising in Russia.” Yandex also stresses that it is an artificial intelligence (AI) company now much like Google’s recent focus on being an AI-first company.
You may have noticed that the top search companies all have voice assistants. Google Assistant, Microsoft Cortana and Baidu in China. This should surprise no one. Google says 20% of mobile search is by voice, Microsoft’s Bing sees 25% of all searches in Windows task bar are by voice and comScore says 50% of all search will be by voice in 2020. Providing voice access is an existential necessity for search giants. Voice assistants enable a new type of search and open up new opportunities for search engines to extend their influence beyond information gathering. You can now ask Google to control your smart home devices, play music and start a game. The level of attention and influence commanded by voice assistants far exceeds the traditional question and response service provided by search engines.
The move by Yandex is simply following the logical playbook established by the other global search leaders. Whether you are a fan of Jefferson Airplane or would like to find the nearest restaurant in Moscow, just ask Alice.