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Smart assistants in Russia: market overview, trends and prospects

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At the end of April, SberDevices opened beta testing of the Visper platform to create a virtual presenter which can read a text like a live speaker. It is the first year when Sberbank deals with digital avatars: Nika, a presence robot, was launched in 2018, and Elena, a virtual news anchor, was launched in 2019, the patent for the technology of creating human facial expressions based on text was obtained by the company in 2020. Last year Mail.ru Group introduced its platform with digital presenters.

Against the background of developing smart assistants, there is a trend of developing voice assistants beyond the voice only approach, that means developing voice assistants not limited only to voice interface.

ICT.Moscow spoke with key players of this market in Russia and foreign industry representatives to understand what is happening with the digital assistant industry now and what are the main trends in the near future. A complex picture of the industry has been formed on the basis of the opinions of 17 experts has formed a complex picture of the industry.

The main trends are: the development of multimodality of smart assistants; experimenting with device formats and user interaction mechanics; the growing expectation of secure and convenient voice commerce; hopes and concerns related to voice identification of users; the increased use of smart assistants in business. Here are some aspects of smart assistants that ICT.Moscow discussed with the representatives of the industry:

How the use of digital assistants is expanding

According to Strategy Analytics, in 2020, the global market for smart speakers surpassed the mark of 150 million units sold. At the same time, the share of smart screens reached 26%. According to Just AI, by the end of 2023 there will be 640 million smart speakers in the world. Juniper Research experts expect there will be 8.4 billion voice assistant devices in use by 2024.

According to Just AI’s estimates, in 2020 the number of users of voice assistants in Russia amounted to 52 million users. The most popular assistants in the country are Alice (45 million users), Google Assistant (11 million) and Siri (6 million). Part of the audience use several solutions at once. The Just AI survey among smartphone users showed that more and more people use smart assistants: in 2019 71% of respondents have interacted with such services, and in 2020 this figure reached 77%. Every day in Russia in 2020 32% of respondents used voice assistants against 29% in 2019.

Kirill Petrov, managing director of Just AI, explained that 2020 had become a turning point for smart assistants, and in 2021 their popularity will continue to grow.

The demand for smart speakers in Russia is also increasing. Sales of speakers with a voice assistant increased sevenfold in a year’s time. According to M.Video-Eldorado’s estimates, in January-July 2020, the vast majority of sales accrued to devices with Alice. In March Yandex announced that it had sold over 1.3 million speakers with its voice assistant in the three years since launch. Nevertheless, smart speakers have not yet become the main channel of interaction between a person and a smart assistant. The Mail.ru Group claims that smartphones are the leading category of devices with voice assistants.

“We estimate that 90 to 95% of voice assistant users use phone assistants. We are observing this trend and are working in the voice first model (multimodal format that allows to interact with voice) rather than voice only. The voice only format has several limitations, they are clearly expressed in the scenarios for choosing, searching or studying information.“

Pavel Gvay, CEO and co-founder of Fabble.io, a tool for designing dialogues, also mentions the limitations of the voice only format.

“Voice only will develop along with neural networks and voice recognition technologies. However, the potential of this format will always be limited to tasks that do not require visual contact. In this regard, the voice first format has almost limitless potential, inheriting the strengths of both the graphical and the voice interface.”  

Who makes smart assistants in Russia

Natural language processing (NLP) is the fourth largest area of ​​work in Russia in the field of artificial intelligence (AI): according to the creators of the “Artificial Intelligence map of Russia” (as of April 29, 2021), 52 companies out of approximately 480 work in this area. The top 15 Russian companies who are developing NLP are Yandex, Speech Technology Center, ABBYY, Mail.ru Group, Just AI, Tinkoff, Sberbank, etc. (the list was compiled by the authors of “AI Almanac No. 2. AI Report — NLP” based on an expert survey).

As Anatoliy Kulbatskiy, Marusya Product Director at Mail.ru Group, notes, “ecosystems are the key players in the market of general-purpose assistants”. These players are, first of all, Yandex with its Alice, Mail.ru Group with Marusya and Sber with the Salut virtual assistants. Together with the development of voice assistants, these companies have created their own devices — Station (Yandex), Capsule (Mail.ru Group) and Portal (Sberbank). The latter is currently the only Russian smart screen similar to Google’s Nest Hub or Amazon’s Echo Show.

MTS is also working on its “speaker-assistant” pair. Last summer, the device was handed out to users for testing, but in early 2021 the media reported that the project had “come to a halt”. Tinkoff also has its own voice assistant “Oleg”; its core functionality is financial management, but it is also capable, for example, of answering incoming phone calls (when using Tinkoff Mobile).

“During the past year we saw the activity, investment and development of specialized assistants for solving specific problems: bank assistants, assistants for ordering services, answering user questions. I think that this year or next year the formation of players in the market for general-purpose assistants will finally be completed, and assistants for solving specialized tasks will more actively come to assistant-platforms. This step will allow to reach out to a large audience and provide people with the experience of interacting with a specialized assistant.”  

Stepan Mitaki, head of the My Moscow mobile application, agrees that one of the current trends is the emergence of narrowly specialized voice assistants, each of which is aimed at solving specific user problems. An example of such an assistant is “Oleg”, which was described as “a voice assistant for financial and lifestyle services”. Experts recently discussed in Clubhouse that over time, companies will be less likely to create their own independent smart assistants and focus more on specialized skills within open platforms. For example, Pavel Kaplya, the head of the Yandex.Dialogues service, noted that “businesses should not set the task of making their own assistant they need to think about how to effectively and concisely enter other general-purpose assistants”.

Another trend of the industry (which, however, the participants of the discussion called controversial) is the opening of platforms for third-party developers to create new skills of smart assistants, in other words — focusing on a model somewhat similar to the open source principle. Based on this model, Alice’s skills, Sber’s smartapps (applications which allows to promote goods and services on smart devices with a built-in Salut voice assistants) and Marusya’s skills are created. Experts see this model as similar to writing apps inside the App Store and Google Play, and predict that over time this area will gather pace and the mechanisms for creating skills will become simpler. But at the same time, they do not unequivocally claim that the industry will develop exactly according to this scenario.

2021 — the year of experiments

The experts with whom ICT.Moscow discussed the trends in the development of digital assistants do not expect drastic changes in 2021, but they expect the emergence new mechanics of user interaction with smart assistants and foresee experiments with digital avatars and various devices.

“I don’t think 2021 will be a turning point in the development of voice tech. The peak of expectations is over, now companies are more likely to experiment with screens, avatars, Emotional AI and wearable devices. These experiments may well ensure the development and change of the market structure in the coming years.”  

Mikhail Burtsev, head of the Neural Networks and Deep Learning Laboratory at MIPT, notes that assistants will become cross-platform, and reminds that Alice is already available in the speaker, TV and car. The Speech Technology Center CEO Dmitry Dyrmovsky also speaks about the experiments. He notes that “banks and financial institutions traditionally give preference to modern AI solutions to improve user experience, they have already realized their effectiveness and will continue to conduct experiments”.

“The advantage of voice only format will remain, and we will also observe the transition from voice only to combined devices. We do not predict exponential growth in 2021; it will happen in the future three years.”  

Co-founder and COO of Neuro.net Alexander Kuznetsov believes that “the potential of voice assistants has not yet been exhausted and there is definitely space for growth”. “It is possible that new formats will emerge, and the prerequisites for this are already appearing in the market”, he adds.

“More and more different life scenarios involve voice interaction, and this creates space for the introduction of virtual assistants and the possibilities for omnichannel interaction with users, switching between devices and formats (voice-to-text) while maintaining context.”  

Pavel Gvay, co-founder of Fabble.io, says that the potential of the voice only format will always be limited to tasks that do not require visual contact. “The voice first format has almost limitless potential in this regard, inheriting the strengths of both the graphical and the voice interface,” the expert claims. Holger G. Weiss, head of German Autolabs, also highlights the limitations of voice only assistants, especially when it comes to interacting with lists. “That is why we are convinced,” he says, “that a combination [of formats] will win — at least for more complex use cases. Smart speakers will still be great for playing music and turning the lights on”.

“Big changes await us, and the key changes lie in multimodality, when interaction with an assistant takes place using both voice and visual elements. As for smart screens, assistants integrated into smart TVs will be widely used.”  

Kirill Petrov, Managing Director of Just AI, recalls that at the end of last year, sales of smart displays started in Russia. According to the expert, “smart screens give more expressiveness and open up new opportunities, for example, video shopping”. At the same time, Roman Doronin from EORA does not expect a large demand for such devices and believes that smart speakers with a screen in 2021 will remain “devices for experts”. Denis Filippov, CTO of SberDevices, believes that the range of devices with virtual assistants will be actively increasing in the near future: any home appliance from a refrigerator to a TV is a place where an assistant can be installed.

“Smart display architecture embodies a multimodal approach — a synergy of visual, voice and touch interfaces. The trend towards multimodality will continue to grow and will gradually reorient the market from voice only to voice first, although in 2021 the concept of voice only will remain the mainstream.”  

Igor Kalinin, founder of TWIN (creates an automated communications platform), is convinced that in terms of technology, a turning point in the field of voice systems has already come, the next step is scaling, including in the Russian market.

From speakers to avatars

SberDevices, the same division that released the first smart screen in Russia, is involved in the creation of digital avatars at Sberbank, together with other structures. They note that an avatar is needed to help business deliver content to an audience without searching and attracting live speakers, that means the process will be faster and cheaper. They described their virtual presenter in the same way in Mail.ru Group. At the time of the presentation of the service, the company predicted that by 2022, 79% of Internet traffic in Russia will be online video.

“In our view, virtual personalities are unlikely to be able to massively replace real people from any sphere in the near future, but they are able to supplement the interfaces for the client’s interaction with information.”  

During a conversation in Clubhouse with profile experts, Fabble CEO Pavel Gvay spoke about the possibilities of multimodality and noted that, probably, “in the future we will be able not only to hear the assistant, but also to see his avatar with facial expressions”.

Another division of Sber, AR/VR Lab, is also engaged in developing digital avatars: in February, a free alpha access to the service was opened, the service creates facial animation of a 3D character from a sound file with a recording of a person’s speech. Holger Weiss, founder and CEO of the German Autolabs company, which develops voice assistants for the logistics sector, also points to the prospects for the interpenetration of augmented and virtual reality technologies with smart assistants.

“Voice assistants will have new AR and VR cases, for example, in the service and manufacturing areas.”  

There are already examples of digital avatars being used instead of TV presenters. For example, in the fall of last year, this technology began to be used on MBN, a Korean TV channel. Journalists believe that a virtual presenter can be especially useful in covering emergencies in case there is no right specialist. But the replacement of presenters or announcers with smart assistants is not always perceived positively: recently, the Moscow Department of Transport in the competition for the Metro announcer received applications submitted on behalf of Alice and Salut assistants, but still chose living people.

Alexander Kuznetsov from Neuro.net notes the increasing availability of technologies — including for medium and small businesses — and also speaks of the trend of introducing smart assistants into user interfaces. Denis Filippov from SberDevices emphasizes that digital avatar technologies can significantly diversify the video content market, reducing production costs. But the question of successful business models of such solutions remains open, the search for new options for their application continues.

Digital assistants as a workforce

Voice tech developers claim that smart assistants, performing part of the functions of people, will not replace human workers.

“We are against the idea of ​​firing employees and replacing them with digital assistants. Our technologies allow you to release a person from routine tasks, monotonous work that can turn a person into a robot. Our digital agents can handle about 80% of standard cases.”  

MegaFon representatives believe that new professions emerge with the development of technology. For example, the development team of Elena, a virtual assistant, includes configurators and dialogue designers, but five years ago there were no such jobs on the Russian market.

Even if voice assistants do not replace humans, they will have a great influence on human labor. Analysts at Gartner at the end of last year included the increase in labor productivity due to the use of speech technology in the top 10 strategic forecasts. They estimate that by 2025, 75% of all conversations at work will be recorded and analyzed, including through smart speakers. Gartner also sees hyper-automation as one of the global technology trends, which includes the use of AI and virtual assistants.

Areas of application for digital assistants

The experts agree that digital assistants are most actively introduced in the banking sector. At the same time, cases of using voice assistants, chatbots and smart avatars can be found not only in banking, but also in medicine, customer support, transport, city services, education, culture and media.

“The financial industry, primarily large banks, will remain the driving forceCall center automation will remain the main area of application. The general trend for the next few years is the introduction of assistants in areas where there is a lot of interaction with customers, for example, in online stores.”  

Alexander Kuznetsov, co-founder and COO of Neuro.net, calls the banking and financial industries and telecom the most active in the implementation of voice assistants. He expects that these industries will be joined by major players in retail, e-commerce and services.

“First of all, these are banks and retail — and this is obvious: banks and financial institutions traditionally give preference to modern AI solutions to improve user experience, they have already realized the effectiveness of these solutions and will continue to experiment. The key driver of growth is freeing employees from routine tasks, automating standard queries, searching for a relevant user response in a short period of time in order to save the client’s time.”  

The co-founder of Fabble.io Pavel Gvay says that the banking sector, medicine and vehicles the most promising areas. According to him, in medicine and the banking sector, it is necessary to collect a lot of information and answer the same type of questions: how to make an appointment with a doctor, what test needs to be done before an appointment. But in terms of highly qualified services, for example, doctors and consultants, digital assistants are unlikely to be replaced in the near future, the expert adds.

Just AI experts also mention that a smart assistant is originally the solution created by IT companies, and they say that Internet companies (Yandex, Mail.ru) and large banks and financial institutions will be the driver in the development of voice assistants in 2021.

“In the medium and small-sized business segment, integrated voice assistants will become popular in 2022-2023. Meanwhile, the most popular conversational AI technologies in these companies are relatively simple scenarios, such as robotic calls and informing companies’ customers.”  

Igor Kalinin from TWIN company says that over time, bots will emerge in all B2C industries. The only problem is that the Russian consumer is not yet used to communicating with bots.

“This is similar to the situation with self-checkout counters — often people prefer to stand in line, just not to checkout and pay for goods on their own. They are afraid to do something wrong. The same applies to bots: many people think that the dialogue will be unsuccessful, and AI will not solve the problem. At the same time, nowadays it is becoming more and more difficult to distinguish a virtual specialist from a real operator. And you may have communicated with a bot without knowing it.”

Managing director of Just AI Kirill Petrov says that the voice search for goods in an electronic catalog is among the new scenarios that are gaining popularity. “This trend partly explains the fact that in the US more than 45% of users would like to be able to interact with mobile applications by voice”, he explains. “In addition, we will see more smart devices in commercial organizations, for example, in hotel rooms”.

Stepan Mitaki, head of the “My Moscow” mobile application, also mentions the fact that smart devices go beyond apartments. According to him, “in the West, you can now find voice assistants in hypermarkets or in various service institutions. And people are not afraid to talk to them”.

CEO of EORA Roman Doronin also pays attention to the efficiency shown by projects where different technologies are combined, for example, natural language processing and computer vision.

Another example of combining technologies would be digital avatars, which use speech technologies with the realistic video images generation. They primarily target industries that use audiovisual content, such as media.

The rise of voice commerce

Making purchases using a voice assistant is one of the basic functionalities that were announced during the presentation of both Alice and Salut. So far, however, commerce is not on the list of the main user scenarios for interacting with virtual assistants. Just AI polls show that in Russia, voice assistants are most frequently used to search the Internet, to navigate, to find out the weather forecast, to call, set an alarm or turn on the music. Dmitry Dyrmovsky, CEO of Speech Technology Center, states that so far most of the skills of voice assistants have a clear entertainment priority, and business orientation is only gaining momentum.

In 2018, experts from OC&C Strategy Consultants company optimistically predicted that by 2022 the volume of the voice commerce market in the United States will reach $40 billion and this sales channel will change retail. According to them, 36% of owners of smart speakers have already used these devices for shopping (for other analysts this figure was lower — 22% according to Edison Research and 23% according to Voicebot). Experts from Juniper Research in November last year predicted that in the next five years, the number of purchases using voice in smart home devices will grow by 630%, and about 20% of all purchases will be made using smart screens and smart TVs. By 2025, the value of transactions using voice on smart home devices will reach $164 billion.

Roman Doronin from EORA agrees that 2021 will be a breakthrough year for the commercialization of voice assistants. According to him, “the trend for this is set by Sber with the Salut assistants ecosystem and the ability to integrate payments into different types of applications”.

“For now, monetization of music via subscriptions for all assistants on the market has been implemented, the next stage is the development of payments for digital goods (games, audio content, other subscription services) for smart devices, as well as non-digital for the platform in mobile applications and the introduction of assistants to simplify user scenarios where users need to enter data, re-order or order a specific product.”

At the same time, Anatoliy Kulbatskiy from Mail.ru Group draws attention to the existing restrictions on the commercialization of both digital content and non-digital goods in Russia. Kulbatskiy points to a relatively small market of devices for digital goods (about 1.5 million devices in the Russian Federation) compared to the market of smartphones, PCs and TVs. Since “the dominant category of use of voice assistants are smartphones, the sale of digital goods via assistants falls under the regulation of sales on Apple and Google platforms”, ​​he emphasizes. On the other hand, payment with voice confirmation is at an early stage, and users do not have a “buy using voice” pattern. But the expert expects a number of new and interesting solutions for purchasing goods, paying for services and payments to appear on the market this year.

“We believe that 2022 will be a breakthrough year, but this year will also be important for customized voice assistants. Apart from banks, retailers will have similar assistants this year. Voice commerce in Russia will develop in line with global trends. The consumer pattern in terms of voice shopping is largely shaped by smart speakers and screens.”  

The expectations of other experts are more restrained. For example, Arkady Sandler, an expert in the field of conversational interfaces and voice technologies (he was the CEO of “Nanosemantics”, a chatbot development company, and supervised the creation of “Marvin” smart speaker and voice assistant at MTS), believes that we will not see a boom in voice commerce this year, although he expects that experiments will be conducted in this area.

In 2021, more than a quarter of which has already passed, the process of users getting more accustomed to the product and the way of interaction will take place. This will lead to an increase in the user base, coverage by class of products. As for monetization, I do not think that massive monetization will begin in the area of general-purpose assistants this year, but there can be some experiments.  

“But assistants for special purposes are created and will be created in order to provide some kind of business model, optimize the business process, etc. Actually, such assistants started to be created long before general-purpose assistants. The very existence of special purpose assistants is the proof of economic feasibility.”  

Alexander Kuznetsov, co-founder of Neuro.net, is convinced, that data confidentiality is the main limitation for the commercialization of smart assistants. He says that the participants in this fast-growing market need to pay a lot of attention to this issue.

Denis Filippov, CTO of SberDevices, points out that at present smart assistants practically do not bring profit.

“While virtual assistants are practically not monetized, for now it looks more like an investment. The local market has not yet reached maturity, but now companies are gradually discovering commercial models in which assistants act as guides between the customer and the purchase.”  

Nikita Murenky, VUI Team Lead of the TORTU conversational product design and development team, discusses the difficulties of another type of commercialization — payment for individual skills of assistants, rather than making purchases using it. In his opinion, in Russia the problems with commercialization are the same as in the rest of the world: “firstly, it is difficult to find the right skills in assistants, although Amazon and Google platforms are doing a lot to change this; secondly, the use cases are either of little value, or the user is simply not ready to pay for them yet”. Today, the culture of using smart devices in Russia and the world is only being formed, the expert emphasizes.

“A user who has bought a device and regularly pays for a subscription to services believes that he has already paid for an assistant — for him, this is part of the product. He does not perceive the assistant skills as a separate product and does not understand why he has to pay for something else.”

Another factor holding back the growth of the segment of smart speakers and other devices with smart assistants is the availability of electronic components to manufacturers. A representative of MTS draws attention to this. “There is an acute shortage of AI chips all over the world, and there are very few companies that already have ready-made chips and products based on them”, he says. “We estimate that the AI ​​chip market will grow by an average of 25% annually”. Also, the expert added that to solve this problem the company had invested $10 million in a startup — the manufacturer of AI chips Kneron.

Smart assistants for smart cities

Over the past few years, smart assistants have begun to be used to simplify the receipt of various social and other services. For example, there is a beta version of the digital assistant on the federal portal of public services, smart chat bots are used in various services of Moscow.

“In our experience, Moscow and the Moscow Region initiate projects, and then the successful experience is scaled in the regions. For example, our joint project with the Ministry of Health of the Moscow Region is indicative here: in December we launched digital operators to make an appointment with a doctor, first on the hotline of the Moscow Region governor, and then the case was introduced in several more regions.”  

Dmitry Dyrmovsky says that the Speech Technology Center receives more and more requests for intelligent dialogue systems, which become a convenient communicator, mediator between the city and its residents. As an example, he mentioned the “Alexandra” chatbot, created jointly with the Moscow Metro team, which answers 88% of passengers’ questions without transferring to an operator. And the head of the laboratory of neural systems and deep learning at MIPT, Mikhail Burtsev, says that in Tatarstan, on the basis of the open library DeepPavlov, they have developed and implemented “Lilia” — an intelligent assistant for public services. She can answer questions about COVID-19, register for vaccinations and take meter readings.

Arkady Sandler says that one of the most frequent options for the implementation of cognitive automation technologies is the creation of chatbots according to their subject areas, which, in fact, is the development of specialized virtual assistants. The main direction of work of states in voice tech is the implementation of AI into hotlines, summarizes Nikita Murenky from TORTU, adding that at the level of regional MFCs this is already happening in Russia right now.

“A great advantage of working with voice assistants in this area lies in a typical case: a user of public services, as a rule, knows what he needs, but does not know how to formulate a request for a service. This is the perfect case for AI, and the voice allows to speed up interactions. The main barrier to implementation is the underdevelopment of the market and lack of experience.”

Boris Mayatsky, a representative of thee “Citywide contact center” product of the IT Department of Moscow Government, considers it more promising for urban tasks to develop individual solutions taking into account information security measures, although some services will be implemented using the skills of voice assistants, for example, Alice or Salut. Stepan Mitaki, head of the “My Moscow” mobile app, speaks in favor of the combined approach. There are situations in which a particular solution can better cope with the user’s task and people have a greater level of trust in it. In some situations, it is possible to help a person through integration. The latter is most relevant for obtaining reference information.

Experts from MegaFon see a high interest in voice assistants from the state and say that it has especially increased during the pandemic. The press service of the telecom operator adds, that in government agencies, voice assistants are most often used to optimize the costs of routine processes: providing reference information, collecting data on metering devices, etc.

But there is also an opposite point of view: Oleg Kovpak, product director of ID R&D, does not yet see much interest from government agencies. “Despite the fact that such services would make it possible to automate the titanic volumes of requests from citizens, such implementations are still rare in Russia, he explains.

Biometrics for working with digital assistants 

The use of digital assistants is impossible without reliable protection systems. The industry is now exploring the possibilities and weaknesses of one of the options for such protection — voice biometrics (identification and authentication of users by voice). In mid-April, it became known about the government’s intention to restart the collection of biometric data of citizens, including voice samples, for the Unified Biometric System (UBS). Experts see voice biometrics as a key to new business models for smart assistants, but they are cautious in assessing the timing of widespread adoption of the technology. The central issue is still the issue of security, but the prospects and possibilities of interaction between business and the UBS are not yet clear.

“The ability to personalize services and provide them only to authenticated users will enable businesses to scale up the use of voice assistants faster, and this is the area where voice biometrics will be widely applied.”  

Arkady Sandler emphasizes that for the use of voice biometrics in sensitive operations, sufficient legal security is required: ​​either regulation, or a clear explanation to the user that he is acting at his own peril and risk.

Product Director of ID R&D Oleg Kovpak lists the factors necessary for accurate voice authentication: it should work on sufficiently short phrases, should not depend on the text of the phrase, and should be protected from possible attacks (for example, playing a command recorded on a dictaphone or a synthesized voice).

According to the expert, such technologies already exist. The UBS does not yet support such scenarios, although the legislative obstacles were removed at the end of last year, Oleg Kovpak says. In addition, some of these scenarios may be tied to voice processing on the device, rather than in the cloud. “I believe that the widespread use of biometrics depends not on the number of samples in the UBS or Sberbank database, but on the availability of services demanded by end customers,” the expert says. “The UBS and Sberbank have an excellent base for providing biometrics as a service to other companies, but it is not yet clear whether they will develop this potential”.

“The introduction of the UBS will certainly contribute to the spread of voice biometrics, especially in the banking sector. The voice sample, left in one bank, can be used by other banks. This will simplify access to banking products.”  

Nikita Murenky believes that it is better to combine voice biometrics with more familiar authentication methods. He explains this by the fact that “the biometric accuracy of the voice is in a fairly wide range of 90-99%”. In addition, using voice is inconvenient in crowded and noisy places, especially when it comes to confidential data, not to mention the fact that a voice sample can be stolen, and this is practiced by telephone fraudsters now.

Mail.ru Group ICT.Moscow says they will consider the option of integration with the UBS, if it is useful for users, but they also focus on the development of their own technologies and solutions. Neuro.net co-founder Alexander Kuznetsov believes that the participation of the state and large players can accelerate the implementation of the technology, but expects that it will be actively used no earlier than next year.

The citywide contact center does not plan to implement voice identification in city services and make payments by voice. “Within the framework of the city contact center, the applicants as well as the legal and regulatory framework are not yet ready for this”, explains Boris Mayatsky, a representative of the “Citywide contact center” product of the IT Department of Moscow Government. “Calling the payment service by voice within the mobile app is, of course, a simple function, but the identification and acceptance of the payment will still be carried out using the usual methods”.

“Voice biometrics is a very interesting and promising technology, but it is still not sufficiently developed. For example, it is not entirely clear what level of security it can provide. This is especially true with the growth of deepfake and voice synthesis technologies. We study and test this technology, but there is still a long way to go before it can be fully implemented.”

Roman Doronin from EORA emphasizes that voice biometrics systems must be resistant to different types of attacks. “And this complexity lies not in the amount of data for training models, but in the logic of the security system and the mechanic of human validation. Attackers do not even use a deepfake now, but simply pre-record phrases while they are talking to you, and can send them to the model’s input”, he explains. Dmitry Dyrmovsky, CEO of the Speech Technology Center group of companies, also sees prospects in the combination of voice and facial biometrics. In his opinion, it will be not only convenient, but also safe.

Alexander Kuznetsov from Neuro.net, on the other hand, says that using the so-called “voice fingerprint” can effectively combat fraud, spoofing (voice substitution or synthesis) and collect a database of fraudsters’ voices.

Voice identification is not only a way to new services, but also a way to improve existing ones. For example, Anatoliy Kulbatskiy, product director of Marusya at Mail.ru Group, believes that there is a number of scenarios when it is important to determine whether a child or an adult is talking to an assistant in order to form the correct set of content.

“We know that a home device is often used by several family members and sometimes by guests. The introduction of biometrics should address the personalization of content. The user will be able to listen to his music, return to the place in a game, where he himself, not his relative, has stopped.”  

Biometrics will be developed and it will help distinguish users for accessing sensitive data — payments, mail, correspondence on social networks, adds Kulbatskiy. This is a normal evolutionary development of the assistant’s functionality. Dmitry Dyrmovsky, CEO of the Speech Technology Center, also speak about the ability of smart assistants to distinguish family members and differentiate access rights, forming relevant proposals. But he emphasizes that the main thing is to provide an opportunity to perform financially significant transactions to a strictly defined circle of people.

The legal framework for smart assistants

Experts from one of the Russian IT companies, during a discussion about voice tech in Clubhouse in February, argued that domestic voice systems are in many ways more developed than foreign ones due to the limitations faced by developers in other countries. Experts with whom ICT.Moscow discussed this issue partly agree with this statement, although there is no complete unanimity on this point.

“Today in Russia it is a little easier to work with personal data than in Europe, but we understand that regulation will be developed. Whether this is good or bad depends on how this regulation will be introduced, to what extent the real scenarios and interests of all stakeholders, including business, will be taken into account.”  

Arkady Sandler notes that his colleagues in other countries do not feel constrained when they comply very predictable laws. “Where there is no clear regulation (not necessarily prohibitive, by the way), there is freedom of interpretation, and the tradition of interpretations by law enforcement agencies in the Russian Federation, to put it mildly, is opportunistic motivated and prone to bias”, the expert adds.

“In Europe, where there is a GDPR, and in the United States (California), the requirements are much stricter, we know this, including from our international projects. But even when working in Russia, we still have many questions regarding regulatory controls. For example, all companies-users of our service must receive consent to advertising calls from their customers, and when using our service in the cloud, they must also receive consent to the transfer of anonymized personal data of their customers to us. Although in fact we do not have access to this data, they are temporarily stored in our cloud storages.”  

In April, the European commission prepared rules for regulating artificial intelligence systems. In particular, the rules classify chat-bots as “moderate risk” and instruct to clearly inform the user that they are not interacting with a person. And remote biometric identification systems are classified as “high risk”, which imposes even more restrictions and requirements on them.

Oleg Kovpak from ID R&D is convinced, that in Russia, there are rather tight restrictions, especially in terms of biometric personal data, and the latest changes signed by the president at the end of last year tighten them even more.

“In my opinion, this does not in any way improve the ability of businesses to use biometrics, especially in already regulated sectors such as banking. Providing information security for working with biometrics puts them on the brink of economic feasibility, and in some places makes them simply technically impracticable, for example, due to the lack of cryptographic protection of the required class on target platforms or devices. If the regulatory trend continues, then possible fears are not unfounded, both the commercial biometrics industry and the state sector represented by the UBS may become more complex, and this will ultimately hit ordinary users.”

A representative of MTS speaks about the need to refine the existing standards. The company considers it important “to make point adjustments to the legislation on personal data so that companies have the opportunity to process pre-anonymised data, including those accumulated by the state, regulated by law”, and “at the legislative level, simplify the procedure for converting personal data into depersonalized information and allow the use of such information”.

“The successful development of the market of smart assistants based on AI technologies requires an increase in the amount of available high-quality data and the creation of supportive environment for its use.”

Igor Kalinin from TWIN has the opposite point of view. He believes that in Russia bots are still minimally limited by regulators — and this gives developers more freedom. But the lack of legislation also indicates a lack of recognition. In his opinion, voice technologies do not yet seem to be a priority area for the government. Moreover, in order to build cooperation with state-owned companies, it is necessary to overcome many restrictions. But at the same time, he recalled that the Ministry of Digital Development intends to provide public services in a dialogue mode with a smart assistant, and, according to the expert, this plan can be implemented in the next few years.

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New Space Sustainability Rating Addresses Space Debris with Mission Certification System

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In early 2022, space organizations will be able to give their missions, including satellite launches and crewed missions, certifications for sustainability with the finalization of the Space Sustainability Rating (SSR).

With ever more satellites being launched each year, the risk of collisions and the proliferation of space debris continues to rise. This has created a need to find ways to maximize the long-term sustainability of the space environment and encourage responsible behaviour.

The SSR system aims to address these issues by quantifying the sustainable behaviour of space actors. These scores will be based on factors ranging from data sharing, choice of orbit, measures taken to avoid collisions, plans to de-orbit satellites on completion of missions, and even how well they can be detected and identified from Earth. The choice and characteristics of a launch provider will also have an impact on the score.

There will be bonus marks for adding optional elements, such as de-orbiting fixtures, which could be used for the active removal of the object once its operational lifetime has been fulfilled.

“The Forum is very glad to support such an innovative approach to a global challenge of space debris,” said Nikolai Khlystov, Lead for Mobility and Space, World Economic Forum. “Incentivizing better behaviour by having actors compete on sustainability will create a race to the top and eSpace at EPFL is a great organization to take the SSR to the next level.”

After a robust selection process involving close to 20 stakeholders, the EPFL Space Center (eSpace) at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (EPFL), based in Lausanne, has been selected to lead and operate the SSR, in preparation for the roll-out of the transparent system for scoring the space sustainability efforts of different space actors.

“Space sustainability is in eSpace’s DNA, as one of our research projects led to the creation of ClearSpace – a pioneer spin-off selected by ESA [European Space Agency] for the first debris removal mission. Hosting the SSR is a strategic move for our Center. With our experience and the partners that will support SSR at EPFL, Switzerland and international levels, we intend to initiate in 2022 what could be a game changer in the way space missions are carried out,” said Jean-Paul Kneib, Professor of Astrophysics and Director of eSpace.

“The SSR aims to influence behaviour by all spaceflight actors, especially commercial entities, and help bring into common usage the sustainable practices that we desperately require,” said Holger Krag, Head of ESA’s Space Safety Programme. “To achieve this, the SSR rating includes a peer-reviewed assessment of the short- and long-term risks that any mission presents to other operators and for our orbital environment in general.”

The SSR initiative was developed over the past two years by the Forum, the ESA and a joint team led by Space Enabled Research Group at the MIT Media Lab, with collaboration from BryceTech and the University of Texas at Austin, and it comes at a critical time. While satellites have long been used for navigation services, weather monitoring and television broadcasts, humankind’s reliance on space infrastructure is set to increase sharply with the launch of large constellations of small satellites designed to boost global internet access.

“The design process of the SSR catalysed a creative community of commercial firms, universities, government agencies and civil society organizations,” said Danielle Wood, Director of the Space Enabled Research Group at the MIT Media Lab. “There is more important work to do in engineering research, policy-making and norm building to ensure that the global community can operate in space for decades to come. All of us who contributed to the SSR are committed to continuing this important work and we hope others will continue to join in.”

There are now nearly 4,000 active satellites in orbit, including the inhabited outposts of the International Space Station and the Tiangong Space Station, currently under construction. As many more organizations from many more countries prepare to launch new missions, this number is set to grow exponentially. The risk of collisions will inevitably increase and raise questions about the capacity of near-Earth orbit to accommodate so many objects safely and sustainably.

By voluntarily taking part in the new SSR system, spacecraft operators, launch service providers and satellite manufacturers will be able to secure one of four levels of certification which they can share externally to show their mission’s level of sustainability.

This will increase transparency, without disclosing any mission-sensitive or proprietary information. The goal is to incentivize good behaviour by all space actors in addressing the problem of space debris. A favourable score for a particular rated party might, for example, result in lower insurance costs or improved funding conditions from financial backers.

Over the two-year development period of the SSR, numerous operators within the space industry have been engaged in the evolution of the rating system and there is already widespread interest in this new tool. Several companies, including Airbus, Astroscale, AXA XL, elseco, Lockheed Martin, Planet, SpaceX and Voyager Space Holdings, have actively supported the SSR concept and expressed interest in participating once it is publicly launched.

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100 Start-ups Join WEF’s Technology Pioneers Community in 2021 Cohort

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The World Economic Forum announced today its 2021 Technology Pioneers, young and growing tech companies taking on top global concerns with innovative technologies and business models. From artificial intelligence (AI) to fintech, the 2021 Tech Pioneers cohort is using new tech to protect the climate, improve healthcare and much more.

“The 2021 cohort of Tech Pioneers includes many future headline makers at the forefront of their industries,” said Susan Nesbitt, Head of the Global Innovators Community, World Economic Forum. “These companies show great potential to not only shake up their industries but offer real solutions to global problems. They’ll bring great value to the World Economic Forum’s mission of improving the state of the world with their participation in the Technology Pioneers community.”

This year’s Technology Pioneers are emerging leaders in a wide range of industries that span healthcare, cleantech, AI, logistics and more. While at the cutting edge of their industries, many Technology Pioneers are also addressing global societal issues by using new tech to improve education options, address climate change issues and others.

Ceretai, for example, is a Technology Pioneer helping media companies uncover stereotypes and representation gaps in their content through automated diversity and equality analysis. Banyan Nation is using technology to support circular economy climate solutions in India. Century Tech is supporting personalized education options through combined innovations in learning science, AI and neuroscience.

This year’s cohort has the highest gender diversity yet, with over 30% of companies led by women. There are also 26 economies represented this year, with the United Arab Emirates, El Salvador, Ethiopia and Zimbabwe represented for the first time. All the 2021 Technology Pioneers are bringing great innovation to their regions.

FlexFinTx, for example, is building self-sovereign digital identities to help the over 400 million Africans that lack proper forms of identification. Meanwhile, Cambridge Industries is addressing climate change by developing sustainable city infrastructure to support waste-to-energy products.

Following their selection as Technology Pioneers, this year’s companies will join an impressive group of alumni that include many household names, such as Airbnb, Google, Kickstarter, Mozilla, Palantir Technologies, Spotify, TransferWise, Twitter and Wikimedia.

The 2021 cohort will also be invited to participate in World Economic Forum workshops events and high-level discussions throughout their two years in the community.

The 2021 Technology Pioneers include:

Africa

  • Cambridge Industries, Ethiopia: Innovating next-generation urban infrastructure through sustainable city parks
  • FlexFinTx, Zimbabwe: Building the next generation of identity management
  • Kuda Technologies, Nigeria: Providing Africans with access to credit and free banking services
  • Moringa School, Kenya:A workforce development platform serving African students
  • mPharma, Ghana:Building good health in Africa through technology-driven healthcare
  • Sokowatch, Kenya: Offering same-day delivery and working capital to African retailers

Asia Pacific

  • AI Medical Service, Japan: Developing the world’s first endoscopic AI for gastric cancer
  • Aspire, Singapore: Banking South-East Asia’s internet economy
  • Avant Meats, China: Biotechnology for healthy, tasty meats made sustainably without animals
  • Banyan Nation, India: Driving circular economy via technology-driven informal recycler integrative technology solutions
  • Black Lake Technologies, China: Cloud-based collaboration software empowering manufacturers with real-time data
  • Cinnamon, Japan: An AI platform to drive digital transformations
  • Civic Ledger, Australia: Helping the world reduce its water footprint
  • CredoLab, Singapore: Developing bank-grade digital credit scorecards built on mobile device metadata
  • DoBrain, Republic of Korea: Game-based learning to unlock and optimize children’s potential
  • Equota Energy, China: AI intelligence-based energy optimization, maintenance and carbon management company
  • HiNounou, China: Using AI to promote healthy ageing and intergenerational solidarity
  • Learnable, China: Interactive and explainable AI solutions on less data
  • MakinaRocks, Republic of Korea:Making industrial technology intelligent and delivering it as transformative solutions
  • mClinica, Singapore:Building the largest digital network of pharmacies in South-East Asia
  • Minieye, China: Using cutting-edge computer vision technology to lead automotive industry change
  • Ocean Protocol, Singapore: Unlocking the value of data – a new asset class
  • Praava Health, Bangladesh: A healthcare platform providing high-quality digital health and in-clinic experiences
  • SandStar, China: Providing leading computer vision technology for retail
  • Shannon Technology, China: A language-understanding intelligent service powered by advanced AI technology
  • Standard Energy, Republic of Korea:Manufacturer of vanadium ion batteries specifically for energy storage systems
  • Videonetics Technology, India:AI and deep learning-powered video computing platform development
  • Zyllem, Singapore:Software-as-a-service solution for logistics network management

Europe

  • Aave, United Kingdom: Built Aave Protocol, an open source and non-custodial liquidity protocol
  • Adhara, United Kingdom: Providing liquidity management and international payments for decentralized financial networks
  • Avrios, Switzerland: Empowering companies to own the true cost of mobility
  • Carbios, France: Green chemistry company providing an industrial solution to PET recycling
  • Century Tech, United Kingdom: Developing AI-based learning technologies
  • Ceretai, Sweden: Media diversity partner supporting companies with diversity strategies and insights
  • CloudNC, United Kingdom: Making manufacturing autonomous
  • Enapter, Italy: Providing green hydrogen technology through anion exchange membrane electrolyser manufacturing
  • EnginZyme, Sweden: Developing the definitive technology platform for sustainable chemical production
  • Greyparrot AI, United Kingdom: Waste recognition to increase transparency and automation in waste management
  • Hydrogenious, Germany: Enabling high-performing hydrogen value chains globally.
  • Parity Technologies, United Kingdom: Employing the blockchain pioneers who launched Ethereum, now building Polkadot
  • Polymateria, United Kingdom: A new scalable solution for the plastic pollution pandemic
  • Powell Software, France: Digital workplace solutions that improve the employee experience
  • PQShield, United Kingdom: Protecting information for the quantum era
  • Riaktr, Belgium: Developing software enabling telecom employees to make better data-driven decisions
  • Senseon, United Kingdom: A full-stack cyber-defence capability for the future, today

Latin America

  • Algramo, Chile: A platform connecting smart-reusable packaging with internet-of-things dispensers
  • Fondeadora, Mexico: Eliminating the inefficiencies related to the traditional banking system
  • Hugo Technologies, El Salvador: A multi-category marketplace for everyday products and services
  • Truora, Colombia: Fast, innovative, safe background checks and identity theft detection solutions

MENA

  • CHEQ, Israel: A global leader in customer acquisition security
  • CropX, Israel: Revolutionizing soil sensing, leading farmers into the connected soil era
  • MDClone, Israel: Self-service, big data, healthcare platform
  • MyndYou, Israel: Improving healthcare quality and lowering costs, engaging and listening
  • Phinergy, Israel: Clean energy generation and storage, using metals as energy carriers
  • Souqalmal, UAE: Building an online financial education platform in the Middle East

North America

  • 54gene, USA: Equalizing precision medicine
  • Airside Mobile, USA: Empowering businesses and people with privacy-based identity management
  • Akash Systems, USA: Manufacturing artificial diamond radios and satellites for low-cost internet access
  • AllStripes Research, USA: Unlocking new treatments for people affected by rare disease
  • Calibrate, USA: A telemedicine metabolic health business
  • CloudKnox, USA:Enabling organizations to implement least-privilege and zero-trust architecture
  • Crowdz, USA: Building a global ecosystem for good for receivables
  • DefinedCrowd, USA: A trusted data partner for AI
  • Diligent Robotics, USA: Building robots to support and empower patient care teams
  • Duality Technologies, USA: Enabling privacy-preserving collaboration and artificial intelligence on sensitive data
  • Dyndrite, USA: Powering the next generation of digital manufacturing
  • Enko Chem, USA:Crop health solutions, discovered and designed with intention
  • Evernym, USA:Leading globally in verifiable credential technology
  • FinMkt, USA: Omni channel and scalable point of sale financing software-as-a-service solutions
  • Gatik, USA: Developing and operating autonomous vehicles for B2B short-haul logistics
  • Gro Intelligence, USA: An AI-powered decision engine where ecology meets economy
  • Hazel Technologies, USA: Dedicated to solving the problem of food waste
  • HumanFirst, USA: Healthcare coming home, starting with digital clinical measures
  • Hypergiant, USA: Focusing critical infrastructure, space and defence using enterprise AI
  • Ionomr, Canada: Commercializing advanced ion-exchange materials to enable the hydrogen economy
  • January, USA: Analysing blood sugar and diet for diabetes control and prevention
  • Jopwell, USA: A diversity, equity and inclusion tech and human capital solution
  • Journera, USA: Helping brands improve marketing, customer experience and operations
  • Kobold Metals, USA: Deploying vanguard scientific computing to discover key battery material deposits
  • Kyndi, USA: Accurate and fast answers to any natural language question
  • LiveLike, USA: Converting passive audiences into engaged communities
  • Metabiota, USA: Building resiliency products and services for infectious disease threats
  • Mori, USA: Reducing waste and creating more sustainable supply chains
  • Natural Fiber Welding, USA: Creating circular and sustainable materials from plants and natural fibres
  • Numina, USA: Measuring street-level activity, privacy-first, to make the real world queryable
  • Pachama, USA: A tech-verified marketplace for nature-based carbon removals
  • Parsley Health, USA: Reversing chronic conditions with cutting-edge holistic medicine
  • Patientory, USA: Empowering users with insights from health data, improving health outcomes
  • Propel, USA: Helping low-income Americans make it through the month, every month
  • Propy, USA: An end-to-end real estate transaction platform facilitating transactions online
  • Reelgood, USA: An all-in-one streaming TV guide
  • Sinai Technologies, USA: Software to cost-effectively measure, analyse, price and reduce emissions
  • Skyhive, Canada: Optimizing human economies for companies, communities and countries
  • Tellus You Care:Improving eldercare with dignity and privacy
  • Unit21, USA: The command centre for risk, fraud and compliance
  • Upguard, USA: A cybersecurity platform that helps global organizations prevent data breaches
  • WooBloo, USA: Passionate about disrupting the smart home space
  • Wright Electric, USA: Building the next generation of aircraft – large, zero-emissions aircraft
  • Xanadu Quantum Technologies, Canada:A quantum technology company building fault-tolerant quantum computers using photonics
  • ZeroAvia, USA: The first practical zero-emissions, hydrogen-fuelled, powertrain technology provider for aviation

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An App to Ease Safety QR Check-Ins Wins the 2021 APEC App Challenge

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An app that makes it easy for people in the region to do their safety QR code check-ins, developed and designed by a team from Australia, has won the 2021 APEC App Challenge, held on the eve of the 2021 APEC Ministers Responsible for Trade meeting (MRT). The announcement was made by Damien O’Connor, New Zealand’s Minister for Trade and Export Growth, who chaired the meeting.

In its fifth year, the APEC App Challenge asked software developers and designers from across the region to build new mobile and web tools that can help the revival of the tourism sector and promote a safe and trustworthy travel environment, especially as the APEC region prepares for a resumption of travel.

The APEC 2021 host economy, New Zealand, has based the competition on a key priority for the forum this year: pursuing innovation and a digitally enabled recovery.

“As member economies work to facilitate the movement of people around the region, it is important to pursue digital tools that support the resumption of travel—when the time is right,” said Minister O’Connor.

“The safe resumption of cross-border travel will be critical to the region’s recovery,” Minister O’Connor said. “Returning to sustainable tourism numbers will support a wide range of businesses, boost employment, and underpin inclusive growth.”

Bryce Cronin and Saira Ambrose, who are from Australia, developed the OneQR Check-In app to help travelers scan and complete their safety check-ins quicker no matter the destination in the region. The winning team will receive a prize of USD 4,000.

“Around the region, people now need to do a safety check-in using a QR code before entering a venue,” said Ambrose. “As we prepare for a safe resumption of travel, QR check-ins will play an even more prominent role.”

The app works by showing travelers what QR check-in app they need to use or install when they travel to a different location. If the local check-in app has been installed on the traveler’s phone, OneQR will redirect travelers to the app. If not, OneQR will direct travelers to the phone’s app store to install the local safety check-in app.

“We believe that the safety check-in process should be quick, easy and simple,” Cronin explained. “Our app aims to assure travelers and hopefully contribute to building back the confidence of the tourism sector both for businesses and travelers.”

Held virtually from 14 May to 5 June, the coding competition, supported by The Asia Foundation and Google, attracted 170 participants from 13 APEC member economies.

Seirios, an app to help travelers rediscover local attractions with a COVID-19 safety rating, by an Australian team won second prize. Wanderer, an app that offers a safer shopping experience, by a Malaysian team won the third prize of the 2021 APEC App Challenge. The developers of Seirios and Wanderer will receive USD 3,000 and USD 2,000, respectively.

“The APEC App Challenge is not only a creative competition for young software developers and designers,” said Dr Rebecca Sta Maria, Executive Director of the APEC Secretariat, “it is a critical measure for addressing the current challenges within APEC where we need to bring together various stakeholders in the region, including the youth, to solve the biggest economic and health crisis of our generation, together.”

“This year’s App Challenge has highlighted an issue we’ve all been wondering about: how can we help generate income in communities that are heavily reliant on tourism and have been hit hard by the pandemic?” said John Karr, The Asia Foundation’s Senior Director of Technology Programs. “Participants have developed a range of solutions that highlight the ability of digital tools to help people discover safer and more local recreation opportunities, and—where it’s possible—get people moving again.”

“Tourism is vital to local economies and livelihoods across Asia-Pacific, and the impact of the pandemic has hit regional communities and small business owners especially hard,” said Scott Beaumont, President of Google Asia-Pacific. “There is a long road to recovery, but technology can help the industry rebuild and emerge stronger—and these brilliant developers are showing us the way.”

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